Archive for the ‘water’ Category


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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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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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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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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cold water

Sunday, February 2, 2014:

   In sub-zero temperatures one of the biggest challenges is keeping water in front of the livestock.

   Stock tanks freeze.  Even the ones with de-icers in them need the ice to be broken out.  The creek freezes over and you have to keep a pick hanging on the woven wire fence so whoever feeds the sheep and young cattle can break out chunks and make a hole for the stock to drink through.  You have to hang the pick on the fence because if you set it down it’ll freeze to the ground and then you may not get it up again until spring.

   The little girls make sure that there are holes in the ice that nearly covers North creek so the hens and ducks can reach water.  The sow must be watered twice a day, when she gets her breakfast and dinner, because although the spring tank continues to run – you can hear the water under the ice, still running down the overflow pipe – the pig nipple in the sow’s pen has a long stem to reach through the side of the barn, and when the temperature drops much below twenty the stem valve freezes.  In the tire tank pasture there is always running water, even if there is only a six-inch hole in the ice for access, at which time we stick a boot in and make the hole bigger.  But the real time-consumer is getting water to the lactating cows.  They do not have a source of constantly running water, and filling their tanks means running hoses from the frost-free spigot on the retreat house.  You have to take your glove off to attach the hoses, and the water feels warmer than the air, which it is, by a long shot, but then your hands are wet and the water that sprays on your coverall freezes and makes them stiff.  After you fill the tanks you have to – quickly – detach all the hoses and hang them on the arbor to drain, pulling each one straight on the slope behind the barn and walking its length twice to be sure it’s empty because if one of the hoses gets ice in it how are we going to water the cows?

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December, 2013:

   I am not altogether comfortable writing about uncertainty while it prevails.  Problems are neater if you wait until you have resolved them to write about them, the vulnerability associated with the problem already a thing of the past.  I hardly think, however, that this is consistent with our explicit promise not to discourage others by disguising our own weaknesses, so I am forcing myself to take (figurative) pen in hand and summarize the last few weeks.

   Not that they have included anything untoward.  Late fall has hurried into winter, and we have had snow on the ground almost constantly for the last month, a condition that usually doesn’t prevail until January.  The cold has come earlier and dipped deeper into the mercury than usual at this season, and this may be the reason for my unease, or it may simply be the light-deprivation normal to residents in the upper river valley around the winter solstice.  Frequent visits to the barns and pastures is the best cure for nervousness of that kind.

   Having to feed hay, as we have had to do when the snow is crusted over with ice, may contribute to my sense of insecurity, since there is only just so much hay in the barns.  But after all, this is our first year to winter dairy animals at the monastery, and only our second year to winter any stock there at all.  We formulate estimations of how long the standing grass will feed the animals, basing our estimates on how long those pastures fed the animals under summer conditions, but so many factors change from season to season: the animals grow, their state of fertility or pregnancy progresses; warm season grasses give way to cool season varieties, and in cold weather more grass must be consumed just to keep the animals warm.

   Every day, even every milking, means another decision about where, and even whether, to pasture the lactating cows, whose paddocks on the east side of the lane have no protection from wind and precipitation.  The dry cows, on the other hand, have had to go on the tire tank pasture several weeks earlier than we had planned for, where they can get into the woods for protection from the weather but where they are moving at a greater speed over the forage than we had hoped.  Given that the front pasture lasted the lactating cows for almost eight weeks this fall, where in the summer it had provided only four weeks of grazing, we hoped, expected even, that the tire tank pasture, stockpiled over the same period, would give similar results.  The mature grasses eaten in July were replaced in part by cool season grasses growing over the months of August, September, October and November, forage we expected to find more palatable to the cows, and with a higher protein content, hence providing more nutrients.  In the front pasture, once our principle hay meadow, this was demonstrably the case, and the grass that fed the lactating cows in July, now regrown, fed them again over the months of October and November.  On the tire tank pasture, however, where there is less clover, the dry cows seem to be moving across the ground very quickly, although it is difficult to make a just estimation of how hard they are grazing when there is snow on the ground.

  This is grass we had intended to begin grazing in January.  The back gate pasture was intended to last the cows through the month of December, projecting their speed from the rate at which they grazed during the summer months; but nature is in flux.  The calves and heifers got bigger over the summer months; the open (not pregnant) cows were bred, and now must nourish the calves they are carrying as well as themselves.  Two steers came home from the farm west of here where they spent the summer, large animals scheduled for slaughter as soon as the weather turned consistently cold, which it did not until they had shared the dry cows’ diminishing grass for a full month; and more grazing was lost because the cows are unwilling to push through the dense briars we are still fighting on the back gate pasture.

   Hence we found ourselves, at the beginning of December, needing to push the cows onto grass stockpiled for January.  This move, as it happened, coincided with the onset of consistent below-freezing temperatures, when it is more convenient by far to have the animals watering on the spring-fed tire tank, which does not freeze over, but still the sight of our winter grass disappearing so early is disconcerting.  We don’t really know how much grass we need for the winter, any more than we know what weather we will have over the next few months.  We don’t even know enough to wish for one event over another; it is this very uncertainty that is creating my unease.

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