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Archive for the ‘grass’ Category

Wednesday, March 25, the Annunciation:

All winter we’ve held the lactating cows up front on the better forage, while the dry cows, heifers and yearlings cleaned up out back on the paddocks farthest from the dairy, and therefore the longest walk for the milkers.  Monday morning we ran all the cows up to the front of the farm and put them in one paddock, where the the sixteen of them actually look like a respectable herd.  They are pastured now on what we would call a sacrifice paddock, an area where we are going to create a lot of impact, more than we would want in a regular rotation.  There are two reasons for this choice:  one is so that the last of the stockpiled forage will be held in abeyance until green-up, so that the first spring paddocks will still contain some brown, high-carbon stuff to slow down the passage of new green grass through the cows’ gut.  The second reason for hitting this paddock hard is that this corner of the front pasture is only lately reclaimed from the jungle.  Last fall when we ran the cows over that paddock there was a lot of good grass they missed under the briars and cane, because they wouldn’t shove their faces in among the thorns to graze.  Feeding hay on that paddock now, with four-times-sixteen that’s sixty-four hooves cutting into the soil, we’ll disadvantage the cane before green-up, as well as adding lots of good organic matter, some biological activity, and whatever grass seeds spills from the hay or makes it unscathed through the cows’ digestive systems.  Coming up on calving we don’t want too much protein in the dry cows, anyway, so this is a win-win:  good nutrition now, better grazing later.

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We are doing so much writing on our book, The Grassfed Homestead, that we have done very little writing of posts.  Winter is not uneventful, but long, cold nights and short, cold, overcast days leave us saturated with snow, and keeping livestock warm and fed, and the never-ending struggle to keep stockwater unfrozen.  Sometimes a ‘possum gets a hen and eats it slily, head first, in the brush behind the henhouse.  JohnPaul shot one on a nighttime raid on the hen coupe at the monastery, where fourteen — less one — hens shiver of a night, waiting for the spring to come.  Five spotted feeder pigs eat mangel-wurzels and hog mash in the bottom of the white barn, burrowing in straw bedding and likewise waiting for the year to turn.  Up by the garden, four lactating Jerseys are eating good green grass hay until the ice melts in the lane and we can turn them out again on the stockpiled forage beyond the shrine.  The dry cows in the very back pasture are getting hay, too, because the ground is frozen so hard that we would have to use a hammer and spike to make new holes for step-in posts, and the cold is so bitter the last two weeks that we sleep better knowing everyone has hay in her belly.  The yearling calves are most comfortable of all, bedded in hay down in the run-in shed that backs to the north against the woods in the corner of the paddock behind the garden.

Sunrise comes earlier now, but the cold’s grip is tightening.

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In a spirit of great daring — or foolhardiness — we gave an interview to a local newspaper.  May God have mercy on our souls.  The conviction that real food is worth taking risks for fueled our intrepidity.

Today’s farm tour was much less stressful; the proprietors of Penn Forest Cemetery are adding a farm component to their green (read: ecologically sound) cemetery, and are interested in how rotational grazing can fit into the operation.  Take a look at their web-site; here is woodland interment without toxic embalming fluids or concrete vaults.  We spent several pleasant hours walking the pastures with Pete and Nancy, showing them our natural water systems and demonstrating rotational grazing patterns for our sheep and cows.

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overgrazed and underfed

Thursday, May 22, 2014:

Sad sight last week, where the place across the road fed out beef cattle on round bales last winter and built up a huge pad of manure and waste hay, spilling nutrients into the water shed (not ours, fortunately) and grazing the pasture down to dirt. There are about ten or fifteen brood cows and a bull, plus a calf or two, on maybe ten acres with a barn, only the five acres nearest the road, where the round bale ring was, are devoid of plant life. The back half of the place is grass grazed down to plush carpeting, and a lot of very healthy multiflora rose. I guess the owner ran out of round bales because he stopped feeding them, and maybe he figures that now that spring in here the cows must be eating grass, only there isn’t any in there. So the other day when we drove by, all the cows, which are usually spread out trying to find a bite of anything to eat, or crowded under a tree looking for a shady place to ruminate on the mouthful or so which is all they got, were instead lined up at the neighbor’s fence, crowded right up against the barbed wire. It was such weird behavior that we took a second look. It was then we realized that the neighbor, who was mowing his lawn in a counter-clockwise direction, was blowing his cut grass into the fence wire. The poor cows, who, although surrounded by lush spring grass outside the fence haven’t had a square meal for weeks, were pushing their faces into the barbed wire trying to pick up the little clippings of grass thrown out by the lawn mower. Beef cattle are usually blocky and solid, but these poor animals are thin, bony, with ribs showing and hip bones sticking ‘way out.

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wet spring

Friday, May 16, 2014:
The spring grass brushes the cows’ bellies and the brown-headed cowbirds are loping through it in search of insects like detectives examining the spot marked ‘X’. The rain has been so generous that the last seventy pounds of seed potatoes are still waiting to go into the ground, while the mangel-wurzels – no, that’s not a joke – need to be rake-thinned, they are so crowded. The first tomato seeds started in the greenhouse completely failed to germinate and we had to resow; the second planting, four hundred strong, is doing well but only about five inches high, pricked out into military rows in four wooden flats. Winter squash started in four inch pots we set out yesterday afternoon before the storm hit, sixty hills of butternut, L.I. Cheese squash, and cushaw. The onions are mostly thinned and transplanted, but now the ground, saturated by days of rain, is too sticky to work.
The non-GMO chicks are a mystery; more anon.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014:
Snow last week has given way to temperatures in the fifties. The sun has been out some of the time, and the green tinge on south and west slopes of the pasture deepens noticeably in a single day. The cows scrounge for the tender green spears of new grass and leave the brown, high-carbon forage to lie. Question: do we expand paddocks to prevent overgrazing of the new growth, or tighten them up to increase competition and best use of the limited forage? We’ve tried the first (Beth gets fretful about low milk production, and the lactating cows are, after a winter of good flesh, looking a little boney), and our observation has been that the cows just spread out and scrounge some more spring growth; so, tomorrow we’ll close down the twelve-hour paddock by forty percent or so and see if rubbing shoulders with one another increases their root-pig-or-die instincts.
In the garden the winter spinach is growing faster than we can eat it; much faster. The young chicks get some chopped spinach along with their ground liver every day. We eat spinach salads with young chives and slivered almonds practically every night, but it never gets monotonous, it is so delicious. On Friday we’ll make spanakopita. Two long beds of seed onions have been planted and last night received the blessed rain; a row of peas set out last week won’t be enough, and we’ll plant another tomorrow. In the kitchen garden there are short rows of beets, carrots and lettuce planted, with wire panels laid over the beds to keep the dogs from digging them up, a capital offense if Mom finds out about it.
Last Tuesday as the Bishop said the funeral mass for Father Ray Ryland and his family and devoted friends followed his body to the grave, a Consol tug steaming down the Beautiful River between New Cumberland locks and Pike Island rounded the bend above Weirton, West Virginia and grounded gently on the sandbar below Alikanna Creek. There is a buoy marking the bar, and twelve barges of coal overran it before the tug, drawing more water than the giant raft, met the bottom. I don’t know if the pilot was asleep, or distracted, or just not looking. We shoveled the dirt into Father’s grave by turns, old men and young men, women and girls and small children, but mostly his strong, tall grandsons, while the sextons looked on. They said no one had ever filled in their own grave before. I wonder if the river boat pilot lost his job.
That boar had three weeks with Porka the sow before we took him out of there. Last fall he fathered ten piglets on her and we thought the job was done this time, but her gestation time is more than past and there are no piglets. There is more to this game than pouring swill in a trough and counting days; we will seek help from our experts.

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Saturday, February 15, 2014:

   A headache sent us to bed unreflective of the weather forecast, which was in any case too much like all the other forecasts this winter to stand out.  Eight inches of wet snow and half an inch of sleet caught us by surprise, and caught the dry cows out in a pasture without access even to such shelter as the woods provide.  In the morning, icicles fringed the fur along their spines and dangled against their foreheads when we carried bales down to a pasture of smooth white, unbroken except here at the fence, where, judging by the evidence, they had paced all night, unable to lie down for the cold and snowfall.  Farmers can’t afford migraines.

   Blessedly, the dry cows are in good condition, not to be put out by an uncomfortable night, and they tucked into the bales we threw them with the pleasure of animals who must ordinarily rustle their own groceries.  The young pigs are always warm in their hutches, and the lactating cows had spent the night in the barn.  But we were back to temperatures that never saw twenty degrees during the day, and dipped below zero at night, and now the ground was – and still is – wrapped in an armor coating of ice, the cows’ breakfast freeze-dried below the surface.

   It is difficult even to move in this snow.  With each step there is a catch and thrust through the half-inch of frozen crust, and a snag to hold the foot coming forward.  Beneath the crust the dry snow is so cold it cannot compress, powdering under your boot and shifting like the climbing up a sand dune.  Simple chores, like walking down the water hoses to drain them, leave us panting; and our breath, which our scarves force upward, freezes in white rime on our eyelashes.  Ice must be broken for animals to drink, even at the spring tank which last winter never froze, and the slabs of ice piled up behind look like heaps of glass.

   Our low tunnels, stronger this year than any year previous, still collapsed, or rather subsided, under the weight of snow, the PVC ribs laid over to the ground under a thick, wrinkled skin of white.  The broom with which we usually sweep the snow off the hoops can’t break through the icy crust and we are forced to use snow shovels, with the result that we snag two or three holes in the six mil plastic covers.  One tunnel has three broken ribs; interestingly, it is the stronger hoops which have broken, unable to bear the weight when their weaker neighbors gave up trying.  Maybe there’s a lesson there.  When the burden of snow is removed the undamaged hoops erect themselves again, and the tunnels once more protect our winter spinach and carrots.

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