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Archive for the ‘rotational grazing’ Category

We’re pretty happy with how our cows thrive on stockpiled forage, and these pictures show why.  Thick coats, well-padded hip bones, calm, contented demeanor — these are happy cows.  Note that these animals have spent the entire winter out in the pasture, with no supplementation except minerals, eating standing forage saved since last July/August, the only exception being a few days when there was so much ice on the snow that we fed square bales in the pasture.

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In answer to questions about winter stockpile:

‘Stockpiled forage’ means mature plants left standing in the pasture and reserved for use after the growing season.  Note that we say ‘mature’ plants, not senescent or lignous.  We time our summer grazing to leave half the pasture acres untouched after their mid-summer grazing.  For this part of Ohio (east central, zone 6), that means that somewhere around the middle of July, or a bit later, whatever we graze over the next six to eight weeks is going to be taken out of the rotation for the rest of the growing year.  About half the farm will be grazed over this lste-summer period.  Then in Sept/Oct/Nov we graze the other half, leaving the earlier pastures to regrow.  We’ll probably make two rotations on the part we’re not stockpiling, depending on what the weather is doing.  In a perfect year — 2018 was pretty satisfactory — we’ll get some good rains and lots of regrowth, and the stockpiled pastures will be fully mature when the cold weather sets in.  Then come late November/early December we finish grazing the fall pastures and start around on the stockpile.

It probably goes without saying that we’ve stockpiled the pastures where we have the most frost-free water (spring-fed tanks).  We don’t like permanent lanes and the impact they get, but in the winter when there’s no snow on the ground we have to leave a temporary lane open back to water.  We use reels to build the lanes, and move them often to minimize the opportunity for back grazing.  Some of the bunch grasses (especially orchard grass) are going to be hit too hard if the cows get bored and start lounging back toward water, so we watch for this and shift the lane fence accordingly.  This method works well for us, and the improvement we’ve seen in our pasture composition and productivity over the last six years has been very satisfactory.

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It’s not that we’re necessarily getting more snow than we’re used to, but that it’s laying longer; the result is that more thought must go into each day’s decisions about grass and grazing.

IMG_4641Not only must we consider the condition of the standing grass (‘stockpiled forage’) and the depth of snow on top of it; the quality of the snow itself, over and above quantity, comes into play.  What kind of snow is it? — and how long has it been here?  turn out to be significant questions as well.

Any amount of powder snow may be brushed aside with a cow’s muzzle (while horses and sheep scrape through the snow with their hooves, cows — ours, at least — push it with their noses), but any more than a thin coat of ice on top of the snow will make for reluctant grazing.  Nevertheless, if that’s what’s for dinner you can serve it, and hungry cows will, if they’re clear that you aren’t going to give in and fetch a few bales, get their noses down and have at it.  Wherever their feet have already broken the crust they’ll begin foraging, and move out from that spot to graze more widely.  Thicker ice is a real barrier to grazing — even walking, if the ice is thick enough; a skim of ice on top of snow will cut a cow’s shins, not dangerously, but enough to make them unhappy.  They’ll huddle together, trampling a perimeter beyond which they will be reluctant to go.

IMG_4733Slush is yet another matter.  If it’s not too thick — half an inch seems to be about the limit — our cows will be philosophical about eating iced forage; beyond that the trouble may not be worth the reward.  But slush has another effect on winter foraging, since it packs down wherever it is stepped on and traps the grass underneath, then freezes.  When the snow melts this grass will be pressed down to the soil, where it’s hardly accessible to bovine tongues and will in any case rot quickly, adding to the soil carbon but no longer available as forage.  So slushy paddocks have to be calculated to allow a percentage, and not a small one, for waste; which allowance has repercussions in the form of potential shortage down the season.

 

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Eight days ago we moved the fourteen dry cows and steers across the farm to the west pasture.  This puts them on spring water which (so far) has never frozen – thus, less work for us, not having to fill tanks and (religiously) drain hoses – but more importantly it puts the cows on the best quality forage we’ve got, excepting only the pastures reserved for the lactating cows.  At first we found the idea that you feed the best stuff first, and the lower grade toward the end of winter, kind of counter-intuitive – we had a vague idea that you would want to feed out the best forage when conditions – both of the weather and the cows – were worst.  Later we read heard, probably from one of the more experienced farmers in the Eastern Ohio Grazing Council, some good reasons for making a different choice.  We’ve worked out our own reasons, something like this:

  • Stockpiled forage is more nutritious than hay – forage tests confirm this — but it’s also exposed to the weather; thus, to wait to feed it is to let it deteriorate.
  • Feeding better forage first means that cattle come into the worst weather in better condition than if they had been getting the lower-quality grass.
  • Young calves with young digestive tracts need the best we can offer them; when they are older is soon enough for managing on coarser forage.

We can’t tell you what we’ll be saying in three years, but that’s how it seems to us right now.

 

 

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The new chicken tractor is as easy to move as a wheelbarrow, making it a good choice for use by our oldest grandchildren.  It holds five birds comfortably (27 square feet of space) and creates good impact on the pasture we are presently renewing.  In the winter it will be a great tractor for use in the garden, where we put chickens over the dormant raised beds to clean up weeds.  In the fall, they will be followed by a sowing of winter-hardy greens, or else a green manure of rye; when the weather turns really cold, bare soil will be covered by a good mulch of hay or shredded leaves.

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Turning the lactating cows into a pasture of about three acres on the west side of the monastery, which is in the process of being reclaimed from eight-foot pokeweed and briars (a pasture informally known as the ‘Calf pasture’, meaning it’s where we feed hay to the young stock when winter weather is really severe), we notice the wide variety of plants — grass, forbs and “weeds” — that make up the knee-high forage which has replaced the poke and canes.  Many, even most, would not be considered forage species, but the lactating cows, moving onto it after two weeks in the timothy and clover predominant in the Spring pasture, are voracious, wading through the tanglefoot  tearing out great mouthfuls of bitter milkweed, young asters and goldenrod,  seedling black locust tops, and bindweed.  And it occurs to us, cooling off for a moment in the shade beside the spring tank, that the cows are balancing their minerals like a chemist, and with greater accuracy and precision than the most practiced pharmacist or naturopath.  And for us, dining on their milk and meat, the benefits must be similar.

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