Posts Tagged ‘calculating winter grass’

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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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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Fall was invented so we’d be glad to see winter — just like human beings gestate for nine months so mom is willing to go through anything to get her body back.  Right now we are so busy that if we didn’t have to sleep we wouldn’t.  There are crops to harvest, gardens to be put to bed, winter beds to cover, some still to plant, garlic to put in the ground for next year, piglets to prepare for, the ram to move in with the ewes, heats to watch to make sure all the cows are bred, feeder hogs to fatten for November butchering, steers to fatten on the best grass for December butchering, fifty new chickens (the gift of our beloved Sisters of Reparation) to move into the barn — and the list goes on and on.  The moon is waxing in its second quarter, and before it is full we need to have many of these chores checked off the list; and the new milk room has yet to be painted and floored.

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   The sheep and short yearling calves are on the white barn paddock, which is small and grazed seldom, making it a natural sacrifice paddock.  This means that we will hold them there and on the wooded hillside above for the winter, realizing that they will do some damage by grazing the grass too short and cutting up the turf when the ground is muddy, but preferring this to letting them graze at will on the five acre south hill pasture where they spend spring, summer and fall.  Additionally, since we feed them hay spread out on the paddock, they will be adding fertility and carbon to the white barn paddock, which, given a good long rest in the spring and early summer, may actually benefit by it.  We don’t know how much damage to expect they will do there, as we have not wintered sheep before.

   Daily thought must be given to the feeding of each animal – how much, where, what kind – as factors such as the cold, and their state of pregnancy, come into play.  Pigs are fed twice daily, one feeding usually being grain-based, either mash, corn, or  bakery waste (courtesy of the monastery), the other being mostly vegetables, thinnings from the low tunnels, cull potatoes and squashes, and whatever our super market salvage gleans.  Dry cows get a new section of grass daily; the lactating cows twice daily, or, in the evening, hay in the barn if the weather looks fractious.  Their ration of grain has gone up to five pounds daily, less than one percent of their body weight, but still more than we would like, but while the pastures are being renovated we have to supplement as necessary to maintain sufficient milk production.  Actually, as far as we know the all-grass dairy farmers in our neck of the woods dry off their animals in December or early January when yield drops below a certain level and the thought of going out in the cold for milking gets really unattractive, but we would not willingly do without our milk.

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