Spring Grazing…Ugh.

…not yet. …not yet.  Just a little longer…..

Ugh. I can’t wait a little longer. I’m out of stockpile! There is still hay in the barn but we don’t want to feed it all. And the cows clearly prefer grazing over waiting for me to bring them feed. So here we are. Grazing field edges that haven’t been grazed in …possibly decades. The cows eat grass, alfalfa and thistle. Why is there thistle? Because they sprayed the groudn with roundup for years to keep the fence clear. The earth doesn’t want to be naked…something has to grow. So thistle grows. The cows stomp and manure ground that hasn’t been directly manured and they only get a couple of hours to do it. We bunch them tightly and move them quickly. This kind of treatment will knock back the thistle better than anything else I can do. (BTW, see Mrs. White with her head up looking at the camera? Her head is not in the game.)

AlfalfaEdge1The field edge lasted two days. The first day we fed hay in the morning, gave them a grassy area to graze then sped them along the field edge. Toward the end of the day we asked them to camp out at the other end of the field where mature, stale grass rules.

AlfalfaEdge2

They munch through the brown grass to find green grass beneath. They trample it all in, knock down brambles and manure everywhere. They even found a really nice antler in the tall grass I would never have found. Then, the next day, we let them have the other half of the field edge they missed the day before. Again, they went onto it full, we kept them bunched tightly and we moved quickly. Alfalfa in the spring can be risky…actually, the transition to green forage is a little tricky but bloat is the biggest concern.

But now what? I have enough of this wooded patch to last until Wednesday evening. Then I have to do something else with my moos. The pasture isn’t ready to be grazed. Well, some portions are but in general, not so much.

EastPastureMost of the grass is just inches tall. We are in a warm rainy cycle. It shouldn’t take long for the grass to really come on and right now a week really makes a big difference. I just need to delay grazing for a little while and when we go to pasture we will be offering big grazing areas and moving the cows quickly. I mean, we’ll offer the 10 cows an acre/day (and probably break that into 4 sections) so they can pick and choose the best grazing and I’ll probably continue to offer them a little hay while we continue the transition and wait for the grass to catch up. We are planning to race across the farm in about a month as shown below (numbers of days per segment, segments will be subdivided), after that we’ll slow down and use smaller and smaller grazing areas, dropping some out for stockpiling. Matron talks about this in a post on her blog.

SpringGrazingPlan

There are, apparently, several important things for me to do right now. First, I don’t want to eat tomorrow’s grass today. If I remove too much of the leafy area I weaken the emerging grass right now when it is fragile. That can potentially set the plant back, limiting its growth for the entire season.

Second, I need to get my cows fat. They are coming out of winter a little on the thin side. They aren’t skinny but they aren’t in the condition I want for calving. I have 30 days before calving starts. Again, I really don’t know anything about cows (sorry if that’s a shock) but as I read in any number of grazing books (Walt Davis comes to mind first), the most important thing I can do to help my cows breed back is to make sure they have a good layer of fat (stored energy) on them at calving time. The good news is their metabolism is set for winter maintenance, not spring gain…so we’ll get compensatory gain from them if we give them access to enough forage and variety until their bodies adjust. Same thing happens when you diet, btw. You go “off feed” for a while, your body adjusts, then you “reward” yourself at a family gathering and suddenly your skinny jeans just don’t fit anymore. You taught your body to become more efficient at storing energy. Well, that’s what we’re doing with the cows. They have been on a diet all winter and they have worked hard and behaved themselves. Soon they get a treat. All the grass they can eat!

I just need to delay a little while longer. There are areas on the map above that are not accounted for. I need to take advantage of those areas. I can get a day in the yard at the yellow house with the help of a little hay. I can get a day in the barnlot. That gets me to Friday night…two extra days of 60 degree plus weather. Will it work? I dunno. I do my best. I read everything I can. I make a plan. I go out and try. I tell you all about it…good or bad. Wish me luck!

(In this post I linked heavily to Matron of Husbandry’s blog. Whatever books and blogs I have read or seminars I have attended, Matron has done the most to remove the fog (for instance, this post). A few postings, a few illustrations and everything became clear. She’s a great teacher…and I bet she’s rolling her eyes right now.)

Cats, Chickens, Cows and Rain. Welcome to April.

I didn’t think it would ever thaw. Winter started early in November and lasted well into March. Now the permafrost has thawed and the grass is just starting to grow again. In spite of the snowfall, we have been pretty dry for a long time so the rain is welcome…but forces us to intensify our management. The chickens have been on pasture for a few weeks and their eggs yolks show it. Just the other day a customer asked me what I had done. From one week to the next her egg yolks had changed from yellow to orange and she was pleased. It takes planning and management to bring that kind of happiness into the world.

The chickens make a big impact on the pasture in a short time. We are moving the flock every 2-3 days. Our current infrastructure makes that difficult on the hills surrounding our home but it has to be done. We are seeking to enhance the landscape with chickens, not create a moonscape. “Enhance” means they spread the cow pies, fluff the ground litter, eat bugs and add manure. A lot of manure. The picture below shows previous chicken pasture on the left and ground the chickens haven’t had access to on the right.

BeforeAfter

You can see that the chickens have eaten a fair portion of the green forage (hence the orange yolks) and they have fluffed up the litter and scratched out the cow manure. I need to be attentive to the pasture health and time their moves based on condition. I can’t simply park the chickens in one place and make an appointment for my phone to remind me to move them in a couple of days. I have to pay attention. They did this in two days here. In other places it takes three days.

The pasture move was timely as we also needed to get the chickens uphill. We are expecting several inches of rain over the next two days. The bottom here can become a temporary creek bed. Apparently a number of piglets were washed away from this very spot in a storm 50 or more years ago. Beyond saving the chickens I needed to get my fencing above the potential water line to prevent it from being tangled or damaged. Also the cows needed to be up high somewhere. They are near the highest point on the farm by the pond munching (and mostly trampling) the remaining forage stand from last summer and a little bit of the edge of the alfalfa field. The cows can eat, tromp and manure the places we can’t reach with the hay mower and exposing junk left laying (I found an ancient roll of barbed wire fencing) and weed trees I need to cut out. They also give me an excuse to manage the trees we plan to keep by cutting the lower limbs to open up grazing beneath the trees.

PondEdgeI can’t do anything without feline companionship. If I get anywhere near the white barn Zippy shows up. She can multi-task both seeking attention and looking for a tasty mouse morsel. The cows won’t really eat this grass but they will knock it down and feed it to the soil. We are still feeding a little hay out here because the forage quality is so low.

Zippy

The cows and chickens are safe on high ground and this time of year I am glad to have my pigs under a roof. The weather wouldn’t affect their health negatively but the impact of pigs on the pasture would limit forage growth this year. I have to be sensitive to pasture health right now. Pigs, cows, chickens…all can set back forage growth for the year.

The pastures around my house have been rotationally grazed by goats, chickens, pigs and cattle for the last two years. The rest of my farm has been continually grazed by cattle for…well, for decades outside of the short time dad kept a few cattle here. It appears to me that the forages we have been managing are at least two weeks ahead of the rest of the farm. Is it the presence of litter on the ground? The mix of manures? The energy stored in the root systems? The higher organic material in the soil? Is it just warmer on the 20 acres near the house? Yes…in short, is it the result of a different paradigm. Manage for forage. Looking back 11 months I should have some serious grass soon. Then we will hit the grazing accelerator. I’ll be sure to give you the play-by-play as we watch the grass grow. I just realized how lame I am. Sigh.

The End of the Stockpile

How much of your farm should you stockpile for winter? 30%? 50%?

All of it. The whole thing. Manage your grazing throughout the season so everything that is not being eaten is recovering then nibble through it all winter. Sure, I set aside portions of my farm to remain ungrazed for extended periods of time but that’s not to save forage…well, we do save forage but that’s not the point. The point is to allow those grasses to come to full maturity. To provide habitat for wildlife. To put down deep roots. To spice things up biologically in the pasture.

It is the eve of April and I’m just about out of grazing. Friday evening we walked the cows up out of the pasture and parked them in the barn for the weekend. I don’t like having my cows in the feedlot. They don’t seem to like it either. It creates a lot of work for us and I don’t feel like they get everything they need. But it gave me a chance to run some Basic H through them to see what all the fuss is about.

Sunday afternoon I built them a new grazing area east of the pond. I had to bring the mineral feeder, posts, reels and trough up from the bottom. Everything you need for grazing in a handy little kit.

PastureKit1

The east side of the pond hasn’t been grazed since ….spring of 2012? Gosh. I need more cows. It’s a mix of everything over there. The pine trees are dying from the pine borer. There is 6′ tall Johnsongrass still standing and who knows what else. Should be an adventure to graze over there.

PastureKit2

We’ll catch the edge of the alfalfa field as we go. I am a little concerned about that but our daily moves should keep things in shape. The mix of green and brown should keep the cow manure from getting too runny. A week here, an optional week at the far East side of the property and we’ll need to start racing through the pastures. It’s only 37 days until we are scheduled to begin calving and I think the dairy cows need to put on a little fat. Big spring pastures + fast moves = fat cows. Walt Davis said to make sure the cows had at least 30 days of green grass before calving to get them in shape. I’m close. I’ll have to time things a little differently next year.

The grass should really start to grow this week. I’m counting on it.

The Pastures to the East

Until recently I haven’t spent much time on the Eastern portion of my property. A distant cousin rented it and that was that. Well, in 5 days his cows will exit the property so my son and I took a walk, mainly to inventory the mature honey locust trees and check the condition of the fences. Some portions of the farm are pretty remote. Steep creek banks prevent access with a tractor. If something dies out there, there really is no way to retrieve it. Obviously this is unfortunate but it’s reality. The coyotes ate well for a few days. Apart from the smell, the kids were fascinated.

CalfThe lack of intensity on our farm over a number of decades has caused those steep creek banks as well as encouraging the thorny pioneer tree species. Further up hill we are seeing damage in the pastures. I can repair this quickly with hooves and rest. Hopefully fixing this will help heal the land further down hill…closing up the wound like closing a zipper.

StreamWashI would have to cross two washes like this to get back to a 9 acre corn field…which means we can’t get there. But we would like to get there to at least shred the corn stubble but it would be nice if we could run a drill across that field to plant it to pasture. I may just have to do it with cows, broadcast seed and hay. That’s probably the right way to go but the mechanical solution sounds cooler.

CornField

That corn field is surrounded by electric fence, mostly on contour. That fence is on my list of fences that will be removed. More on infrastructure another time.

All in all the pastures and field to the east don’t look too bad. The North-facing slopes are a patchwork of weeds, sparse grass and moss. The moss has to go but hooves, chicken claws and manure will take care of that. The chicken tractors are out there now. The creek is pretty badly eroded further down. I don’t have a picture to share as it was getting too dark but it isn’t pretty. Just know I can’t climb down, I have to fall and I can stand in the bottom and can’t see out. And I’m not short. I have a lot of work to do with my chainsaw but the cows should do the majority of the real work. I just need more cows. And more time. A bulldozer would be nice too. Sigh.

 

 

 

Rolling the Grazing Forward

A reader asked what I meant yesterday when I said, “We are currently moving the cows daily and rolling about four days worth of grazing with them.” Those words were, apparently, not as clear as they should have been. With the help of our trusty Agricola game pieces (and a few matches) I will demonstrate what I meant. We’ll start on day 4 and roll through day 7 with the help of some toy cows. First, a quick look at what the blocks mean.

MapLegendAnd we’re ready to begin. The cows are in the corner of the perimeter fence in this illustration. They have been here for four days. For illustration purposes, each day they get a new row of three blocks. There are two watering troughs that move with the cows and a free choice mineral feeder. The lagging watering trough is allowed to go empty so we can simply carry it forward. The mineral feeder has to be dragged so we move it less frequently.

Day4

I want to point out that the cows spend most of their time on the freshest strip of ground. They get up to eat then lay down to chew their cud. What happens when a cow stands up? It manures. Cows like to lay down on fresh ground. They don’t like to lay in manure. So the cows are always moving to the fresh ground, leaving a path of muddy, manure-covered, hoof-printed destruction in their wake. The fresh ground is like couch, cupboard and toilet all in one. So they always need more.

Day5

So we move the cows. By day 5 we are beginning to fence out the first waterer. We want to let that go empty. There are times when it is entirely appropriate to dump 100 gallons of water on the pasture but not at the height of mud season.

Day6

The next day we move the cows again. They are always where the action is. The action is right up by the new fence. The back fence creeps forward one day at a time…rolling four days worth of ground forward. By day 4 new blades of grass are starting to peek their heads up. It would be detrimental to this year’s grass crop to allow the cattle to take a bite now. So we move them on.

Day7

It’s day 7 and you’re getting the idea. We have had to move the mineral feeder forward. Sometimes we fence them out of the mineral feeder for a day just to make it easier for us. The cows are always eating, stomping, lounging and manuring on fresh ground. They really only go back to get to the water. But right now I think it is important to give them the extra room, even if they don’t use it. They may face a choice. They could stand in the wet mud on a rainy day or they could stand under a tree on a bit of high ground. I would like to give them the option.

It is important for me to add that this is not our year-round strategy. It would work…ish. But it’s not what we do. This is this month’s grazing strategy. All winter there has been no back fence. We just allow the cows to move forward. Now that grass is growing again we are bringing the back fence along to protect tender young plants. When the grass starts to grow really fast we’ll start to move the cows really fast. Right now they may gain 1/16th of an acre/day. In April I anticipate giving our 11 cows 1/2 acre/day. The cows will just nibble the tips and select the choice morsels as they gear up for calving in May. When the grass growth slows the cows slow too. But that’s a subject for another blog post…or book.

Just a couple of other notes on the ground we are currently grazing. This ground was planned to be this year’s sacrifice area. The whole farm is a muddy mess, except the few South-facing slopes. To protect the rest of the farm we stockpiled fescue everywhere we could and planned to be on the flat bottom during the thaw. Next year we’ll find a different flat spot to graze in March. If it’s too wet we’ll just take the cows to the barn and feed them there but that creates an awful lot of work for us feeding, bedding and later composting and hauling the manure.

Finally, because of the amount of disturbance the cows are creating right now (which really isn’t too bad) we will allow this ground to have an extended recovery period. We will finish grazing this by April 1 and we may not return until June. Maybe even July. 60 days is a long time in the spring, keeping in mind what I said about offering the cattle 1/2 acre grazing areas while the grass is growing quickly.

Strolling Through the Pasture March 2014

The pastures are finally greening up and we still have a little stockpiled grass for the cows. Whew! Let’s follow the cows through the pasture over the winter and see what they did.

The cows started on the stockpiled pasture in January. This had been grazed in July and rested since August. The fescue was thick and tall and there was a good amount of sorgum, sudan grass, turnips and radishes in the stand. I was disappointed at how little clover came out but maybe next year. For reference, this is what it looked like when the cows grazed it in July

EarlyMorningMove

We bunched the cows up densely all winter and supplemented them with 6-12 pounds of hay each day from November first. Basically, we offered a single square bale of alfalfa in the morning and a single bale of grass hay in the evening most days, but just the grass hay when the weather was nicer. Otherwise, the cows were expected to push the snow aside and eat what they could find. It worked out great. The cows came through winter in great condition. This was suggested to me by David Hall who said he tries to feed 30 days worth of hay to his cattle, spread over 6 months. I didn’t do quite as well as that but my pastures are getting better and it won’t be long.

But this isn’t a post about cows. This is a post about pasture. You have to know the story so you will understand what we did. We put down a lot of manure. Like a lot.

March2014_1

Those manure pats have been frozen for 3 months but you can see the density. By taking the hay to the cows and offering the cows fresh ground at regular intervals we have an even manure distribution. I moved the hay so I don’t have to move the manure. You down?

Turn to the right and go up the hill and we get to the remains of a big patch of turnips.

March2014_2The manure coverage is not as dense here. We had a spot of wet, cold, windy weather so the cows tended to shelter and concentrate their manure under the trees. But still, it isn’t bad. Notice the little bits of green grass coming up here and there. More on that as we go.

March2014_3Further up the hill and a bit to the west the manure coverage is better. Here the forage was stronger. Still a few turnips (which make the cows loose) but plenty to eat and a good great amount of litter covering the soil. In fact, that’s kind of a uniform thing across all of our pastures. We have a thick layer of litter over all of our pastures. Here it is particularly thick. Much of it is stems from the goldenrod stand that dominated the landscape until July but the thick grass that grew here is still protecting our soil. A few pictures from now the real value of the litter shows itself.

March2014_4In the picture above, I have crossed the creek and I’m looking back toward where I stood in the previous picture. I was standing up to the left of that power pole on top of the hill. Notice how green the South-facing slope is already. Also notice the manure density and the soil litter. Pay no attention to the scrubby trees, the brush pile or the small pile of metal I haven’t finished hauling out.

March2014_5This is the cemetery hill and this is what I’m talking about when I say “litter”. The cows weren’t allowed to (or interested in) eating down to the dirt. We just kept them moving along as they dug through the snow for food. As a result…

March2014_6

the cemetery hill is several weeks ahead of the surrounding farms in terms of grass growth. That’s all well and good but what are the cows actually eating? I mean grass hasn’t grown here for nearly 6 months.

March2014_7They are eating whatever grew 6 months ago. They trample dried stalks of tall weeds, crop close to thorny trees and even nibble at tree limbs. Fescue is the main portion of their diet but they eat leaves and whatever else they can find.

March2014_8

With the recent freeze/thaw cycles we have about 2″ of mud on top of several inches of frozen ground so the cows are making a bit of a mess of things. The picture above is what things look like around the watering troughs. That’s some pretty serious cow impact and will require an extended recovery time. But that’s part of the plan. I have saved this bottom ground as a sacrifice area to preserve the rest of the pasture for later grazing. This will recover and, I believe, be better than ever. We just have to give it time.

March2014_9

If you are concerned that I’m pushing the cows too hard I want to say that my cows are clean, in excellent condition and their manure is perfect. My concern is with the land. Maybe I’m pushing that too hard. I don’t think I am but I don’t want to find out I’m wrong. We are currently moving the cows daily and rolling about four days worth of grazing with them. These are currently larger grazing areas than they would have in the late summer or even than they got in December and January but the forage quality is decreased and it’s pretty muddy out there. We also try to give them room to stretch their legs. Rolling four days worth of grazing forward seems to work well for us.

March2014_10This picture should give the reader an idea of how much space we give 11 cows. There is a line below the cows showing yesterday’s grazing line…that’s where the fence was. The white cow at the top right is almost up against today’s fence. I haven’t moved the water troughs in the picture above but generally, one 100 gallon watering trough stays at the new front fence line, a second trough lags behind. As the second is emptied I move it ahead of the first. We put a cup of apple cider vinegar in each as we fill them and the cows seem to appreciate it. We also drag their mineral box along every few days.

We have enough standing grass in the bottom to get us to April 1. At that point we plan to graze along the Eastern edge of the South pond. Then we’ll move to the draw East of the big alfalfa field. Dad doesn’t think that has been grazed in years. Decades possibly. That gives us time to establish our grasses before starting to graze in earnest. I suspect we’ll spend most of April grazing 1/2 acre per day with our 11 cows. A portion of our farm will remain ungrazed all year. A portion will be set aside for late summer and a portion will be used in the spring then rested later in the year. More detail to come. For now it is enough to celebrate that it is March and we have more grass than we can eat and hay left in the barn. It worked!

Parts and Patterns

Julie bought me the book Holostic Management 5 or more years ago. We took a stab at reading it at the time but really couldn’t get through the meat. We had a conceptual understanding of grazing but no real hands-on experience…and experience was needed. So we put the book aside.

I am overdue for another stab at the book and as I read it again I am fascinated. This time I seem to be getting it…or, at least, getting more of it. And that’s good since I sent a copy of it to dad’s friend Marty…and I know he’ll breeze through the book.

Chapter 3 kicks off a discussion of Jans Christian Smuts’ book Holism and Evolution, presenting the concept that, though we tend to break things down into individual parts, we need to look at wholes. In a recent post I discussed the loss of native diversity because in our local oak/hickory forests, Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchids are a part of the whole. Remove that part and the whole is diminished by the loss…the remainder becomes increasingly fragile.

The book gives several examples of ecological degradation caused by predator removal. If I trap out the minks I will open a void in predation. Minks eat mice. Extra mice may be a benefit to other predators but the loss of the mink makes our farm slightly more fragile. What happens when I kill the mink and disease removes the coyotes and foxes? Can the owls pick up that much slack?

But who cares about mice and minks and owls? We are farmers. We grow cows and pigs and chickens. And minks eat chickens. And owls eat chickens. So why not just kill the minks and scare off the owls and raise chickens in greater security?

Because of the whole interconnected web occurring on the farm. Owls also eat skunks. If there are no owls what will eat skunks? Maybe I could get a big dog? But that won’t eat large numbers of mice. So…barn cats? But those will eat song birds too. I could keep searching for substitutions to force my will on the land but it is not hard to imagine that I would be better off nestling, rather than imposing, my farm into the countryside. To make my farm an enhancement of the natural order rather than a replacement of the natural order. I need to find a pattern of farming that compliments the patterns of the landscape.

So I have to manage for diversity. And that includes making room for my enemy, the mink.

But I also need to recognize and enhance patterns. Hackberry trees grow alongside walnut trees. Gooseberry grows in their shade. Opossums eat gooseberries. Squirrels eat and plant walnuts, acorns and hickory nuts. Hawks eat Squirrels. All of them add manure.

The wildlife can’t begin to eat the gooseberry, nut and squirrel crop. I happen to like gooseberries, hickory nuts and squirrel. I have to find ways to fit myself into the landscape without diminishing the whole. Further, I have to fit cows, pigs and chickens into the landscape while retaining and respecting coyotes, foxes, mink, mice, squirrels, owls, hawks, deer, raccoons, groundhogs, skunks, opossums, rabbits, gooseberries, walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns and Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchids.

There are patterns holding this abundance of life together and my job, as a farmer, is to weave myself into the pattern, not to unravel it.

That only scratches the surface of the chapter but it is enough for today’s posting.

How are you weaving yourself into the patterns you observe?

Diary of the Winter Stockpile: Day 72

November 1 we were grazing the cows in our yard. I had successfully delayed mowing to the point that the yard functioned as a stockpiled pasture. November 12 the cows were grazing their way around the barnyard. We cut several cuttings of hay in the barn yard each year and the grasses had recovered sufficiently that I thought they should be eaten by cattle rather than smashed by a tractor. By Nov. 16th we felt the alfalfa was ready to graze (or nearly so) so we walked the cows to the alfalfa field.

GrazingStockpile5We started the cows on the fescue and clovers that had regrown since the last hay cutting then, over the course of several days, moved them into the alfalfa field. The first week or so of grazing was not pure alfalfa…it had grasses mixed in. Bloat is a real concern and rapidly changing forages can be problematic so this was when we started feeding a bale of hay each morning. Giving them dry matter early in the day, then moving the cows around noon (after the frost had dried) eased everybody’s worries.

So around Nov. 20 we fed the first bale of hay. The idea is to feed 30 days worth of hay over the course of five months. That way the cows are still eating fresh green forage (which they seem to enjoy) but with a little bit of supplement to make sure they are getting just what they need while also spreading their own manure across the farm. This was inspired by my conversation with David Hall. Early on we were asking 11 cows to share one 60 pound square bale. When the snow got heavy we would split out two bales. The balance of their daily dietary needs was provided by the stockpiled forages. Anyway, enough theory. Let’s look at some more pictures.

GrazingStockpile3The remaining stockpile is looking pretty brown. Fortunately, when the severe cold weather hit last week, the grasses were insulated by a layer of snow. It may not look like much but the cows really seem to appreciate it.

GrazingStockpile4The wilted turnip greens, the turnips themselves, the fescue and other grasses along with a few fallen leaves and the cows are doing quite well. Each day we give them a little more ground (you just get a feel for how much to give them by looking at standing forage, previous day’s utilization and gut fill) and we use that ground as a clean plate for feeding them the day’s hay. I try to feed hay on high ground if I can. If they look hungry we give a bale of grass hay in the afternoon and I try to do better estimating the next day’s pasture. Each night the cows find some reasonably clean sheets and go to bed, often under a tree.

GrazingStockpile2As the pasture freezes and thaws the cows can really cause soil disturbance…disruption…they can really make mud pies. So we try to move the mineral feeder and the water trough regularly, spreading that impact over a greater area. I’m not against mud pies. They will recover before summer. I’m against cows slipping on ice around the water trough. For the most part, though, the pasture is staying in very good condition. We had an inch of rain on Friday on top of 8-10″ of melting snow. The pasture is no worse for the wear.

As always, this is more “how-we” than “how-to” but managing grazing through the winter has, to this point, been a positive experience for us. It really is no big deal to build a little fence and haul a bale out to them each morning. Far, FAR better than the chores required for the short period of time they were in the barn.

In and Out of the Moo Cow Hotel

When the bad weather hit Saturday afternoon we moved the cows to the barn. We have been grazing stockpile but with wind chills near -40 F we thought it would be best to have them out of the wind and in a convenient place. Convenient for us…not necessary for them. Really, the cows would have been fine standing together on the leeward side of a hill sheltered by a tree. It really was an issue of convenience for us.

Each morning I would clear the manure from a stretch by the fence and put out bales there. I don’t have a feeder in this lot…something I’ll have to address going forward. I would split the bales in a couple of different locations. Each morning and each evening I would offer a square bale of alfalfa and a square bale of grass. While the cows were busy grazing I would put two or three bales of straw down for fresh bedding after cleaning up big, obvious messes.

FeedLot1

Then I would pull the hose out of the barn loft and refill the water trough, breaking out the ice along the way.

IcyTrough

I have mixed feelings about this entire setup. First, since I don’t have feed bunks I didn’t feel that the cows had a clean plate to eat from each day. It reached a point where there was so much frozen urine and manure I just had to do my best…and my best was barely enough. When the cows are on pasture they get a little more ground each day. That new ground is like a totally clean plate and is a great place to feed them each morning. Then they can graze their day away.

Second, I just don’t think the cows were happy. They just sort of moped about. Like they were a little stir crazy…or had as much cabin fever as the kids did. This was more completely expressed Thursday morning when we led the cows back to pasture. They ate their hay then went running, kicking and bucking through the pasture. They seemed to enjoy stretching their legs for the first time in 5 days.

SnowCows

The cows are not out of their fence. The previous day’s fence posts were frozen in place and could not be removed. The cows bent them all. Stinkers.

So I’m glad, for my own sake, that I have the option to shut up the cows in the barn lot. But I can see that it’s maybe not the best for the cows. Next year I’ll have the entire feedlot for my own use complete with feed bunks. I’ll design my pasture usage to preserve and stockpile the pasture near the feedlot so I can, if needed, allow the cows access to shelter and feed in a bunk but still give them access to the larger pasture area. They will be able to go where they like while still allowing me to feed with relative ease. I’ll just have to make sure I don’t get lazy and feed them in the bunk all winter as I want their nutrients on pasture, not in the feed lot.

Phosphorus. Who Knew?

Our mineral array from Free Choice Enterprises arrived Thursday morning. The company sent enough to last 10 cows a couple of months. Let me say that differently. They sent a bag of everything plus extra trace mineral arrays and extra extra phosphorus.

Good thing too. The cows attacked the phosphorus. Attacked. It.

Minerals

As frost was arriving we were feeding comfrey to the cows. Apparently comfrey is a phosphorus accumulator. The cows loved it. Other phosphorus accumulators include dock and shagbark hickory. These are all plants that grow deep root systems over years and years…involving relationships with fungal environments. I don’t remember seeing the cows eating dock. Any tree leaves within reach are fair game though. I can’t discount the possibility that comfrey may simply taste good.

But why do the cows think we are short on phosphorus? There’s plenty of manure on the pasture all year. All manner of N-P-K has been spread on my farm for the last 60 years…or harvested and fed into my cattle…and dumped on the pasture. How could we possibly be short on phosphorus? It’s not like there’s a shortage of dock growing in my pastures.

I’ll tell you what I think. I probably won’t know if I’m right in my lifetime but I’ll tell you anyway.

I think it’s because the pastures have been grazed down to nothing forever. No residual left to cover the dirt summer or winter. Just pulses of spring and fall lush growth. That is an environment that favors bacterial growth…it inhibits fungal growth. Further, the cows tend to manure under shelter…to rest under shade then unload before walking away. Some percentage of the manure ends up on the pasture but a large percentage of it is concentrated under trees.

But over the next 50 years or so, if we can keep managing our grazing for high residual, we’ll see an increase in fungal activity and a more even distribution of manure. It will help when we establish diverse strips of trees on contour in our pastures. It also helps to have high diversity in our pastures.

But I have to wonder about the buffalo. What would a herd of buffalo do if they came across a phosphorus lick as they grazed the prairie? Would they stop to partake?

Do children like candy?

Maybe that’s what I’m seeing. Maybe it’s not so much a nutritional deficiency as just the cows stocking up on something hard to find while it’s on sale. We’ll see if the rate of consumption continues over the next 20 years…but I’m not jumping to conclusions if it does. What I’m really looking for is cows giving birth to healthy calves without difficulty. Cows without health problems. Phosphorus? Meh. I just have to trust that the cows know what is good for them…in this case. I don’t take the same position concerning lush alfalfa though.

All I really know is that I need to close the loop on my land as much as possible to keep our nutrients at home. Keeping our dirt covered and our roots deep should help with that. The cows and I will come to some accord concerning mineral consumption. So far I’m liking what I’m seeing.