Let it Grow!


I see Mrs. White in the morning light
Not a cow pie to be seen
A kingdom of grass and forbs
And Julie is the Queen!

Let it grow! Let it grow!
Can’t hold the cows back anymore!

I divided our farm into 10 temporary paddocks late in March and the cows graze 3 acres of fresh grass every day. The idea is to give them the very best of the very best of the pasture without putting pressure on the grass. Right now I want grass growth, not animal density. The more grass there is the more grass there will be because, if you watch, a 6″ blade of grass will double in size faster than a 1″ blade of grass. Bigger solar collector? Different maturity? Both? Dunno. Never finished reading Voisin. But it happens.

So we move the cows quickly to keep them from munching the grass down to the dirt. 9 days later the grass is ready to rock again.


I hear your questions. “When do we move them?” “How do we know they are getting enough?” “Honey, where is my super suit?” I lack certainty concerning all three. Frozone built a case for his super suit behind the murphy bed. But the suit isn’t there. Did his wife put it somewhere else? Did Frozone simply forget to put it away? I have no idea. It’s one of the great unanswerable questions of life. The viewer is only left to assume he found it somewhere in the house and that his dinner will be served cold.

We move the cattle later in the day when sugar content in the grass is high. Usually the cows are so fat and full it’s hard to convince them to move to a new buffet. We open the fence. We call. We circle behind them and zig zag like a border collie to get them moving and hope for the best. I don’t worry about the cattle eating enough. They obviously eat enough. I worry about them leaving enough behind. I just want the cows to graze a little off of each plant, distribute manure and move on quickly.

But the time will come when I start to worry about them eating enough…eating enough of high-quality. I monitor grass regrowth during each rotation. When the starting point is ready to graze again the cows go back to the starting point. Heck with the rest of the farm. It will grow rank and dense and overly mature and will still be standing there waiting when we enter the late-summer drought. That reserve forage will buy us recovery time. The only thing is we have to reserve a different part of the farm each year. So we start in a different pasture each spring.

But there is even more involved than that oversimplified view. Right now the cows get lots of grass…cause there is lots of growth. Soon we’ll put on the brakes. Instead of covering the whole farm in 10 days we’ll cover the farm in 45 days. Or 90 days. Seasons change. In the early part of April I was worried that I had the cows out too soon and grass wasn’t growing. Now I have so much stinking grass I’m worried that I’ll never get through it all. But it won’t be long and the rain will stop. Then I’ll flip back the other way. We’ll slow the cows down. We will manage differently.

Kind of exciting. Well, I think it’s exciting anyway.

Did you know I have children? If you missed any of today’s pop culture references ask someone who has children.

Strolling Through the Pasture March 2015

Remember strolling through the pasture? I used to do this quite a bit. What has happened to my life? Sigh.

I still walk the pastures. I always have my phone with me. I just don’t seem to stop and look around anymore. Julie took most of today’s pictures. This isn’t a farm walk. It’s just a snapshot of the farm (pun!) in a few places. The cows are way up north of the barn and hog building. Nothing has grazed there since September and that was brief as we were trying to get to the clover field asap.

Let’s start in the trees.


Not much going on here in terms of forage. Maybe this is a good time to talk about goals, intentions, reality and consequences.

The goal is to allow the cows to quickly skim across the landscape, allowing them to eat a little of the new, a lot of the old and to make the most of the remaining hay by converting it into magical brown messy stuff. That’s the goal.


Our intention is to minimize the amount of damage cow hooves make to the muddy landscape while grazing…most of the time. Sometimes a little creative destruction is appropriate. But it has to be intentional. Hooves can cut the soil and allow tiny pools of water to form and increase opportunity for seed germination. But they can also cause soil compaction.


The reality is we aren’t very good at this stuff. We still have the cows bunched up tightly because the grass is not growing fast and we don’t want to decapitate baby grass. So we are spreading out the magical brown messy stuff, allowing the cows access to fresh green, old green and hay but sometimes they make a mess. And that’s my fault. Normally it’s just around the water supply but sometimes it’s in places that just don’t drain well.


I guess it doesn’t look too bad. The soil is covered. The cows have been asked to move. But they will return in a few weeks. In fact, I may try to rotate across the entire farm every 10 days this spring. Yeah. I want to put a lot of energy into the cattle so they shed out quickly. We’ll see how it goes. I have 16 animals grazing nearly 45 acres so they should get the cream of the cream. That’s part of why the hay is out there…to help balance out their digestion. But I want to talk about what cream is and what cream isn’t.


This is not cream. This is grass in its infancy. I have to protect this grass right now. Maybe for another two weeks. So the cows are still bunched up and moving slowly over tall fescue stockpile. Acres and acres of it. With access to hay.


While the rest of the farm just gets to sit and rest. I want to point out the brush in the picture below. All those thorny stems are hedge trees. Hundreds of them. Every one 1″ in diameter and loaded with sharp thorns. That’s what happens when you cut hedge trees without killing the stump. Ugh. Pick your poison. You can either apply a bit of brush killer with a paintbrush or you can apply the loppers every few months for the next few years.


The pastures to the east are recovering after heavy grazing most of the winter…


..with the exception of the broilers. They move daily, dropping a tremendous amount of manure along the way. Otherwise, we are resting this area. Need to put some clover seed out too.


So now we are at the part about consequences. What are the consequences of messing up today?

The consequences are pretty serious. If I graze the young grass too soon I’ll lose production all summer. If I compact the soil the pasture will suffer for years. If…if…if…

But if I don’t graze off and smash down some of that dead, oxidizing grass I’ll hurt grass production for the year. And I’ll have to feed more hay. And put down more bedding. And haul bedding later.

So the cows are on pasture. Again. Thank God. And the chickens are following close behind. The old chickens. The ones I should have slaughtered last fall but didn’t. After taking their third winter off they are laying heavily again.

Mess up or not, April will be here soon. Let’s take a look at April 30 of 2014.


Look at all that fescue! It won’t be long.

Hopeful. Cautiously Hopeful.

It snowed. Then it snowed again. Then, to add insult to injury, it snowed again…on March first.


There are some years Julie and I plant peas and radishes outside in the last week of February. This is not one of those years. This was a cold, snowy, cold, dreary cold winter. Did I mention it was cold? Oh, it was cold all right.

But the forecast this week calls for 50’s and 60’s in the day and mid-30’s at night.

You know what that means? Well…you know what that may mean? Well…you know what we hope that means?

We hope that means we can move the broilers out of the brooder and onto pasture. And they need to go. They really, really need to go.

I plan to run the chicken tractors on a slightly sloping hill north of the hog building. That should help drainage (I killed an area of my alfalfa field where chicken tractors were parked during a heavy rainstorm) and will make moving the chicken tractors easier each time.

BarnTime travel with me 5 days into the future.

I’m back. You may not have known but I shelved this post for a few days. I was hopeful but cautious. I’m cautious even about crossing my fingers publicly. Let me sum up what you missed.

It warmed up.

Ta da! 75 degrees yesterday! Moving fence for cows I was stepping about half of the posts into swamp, half of the posts into ice. Weird.

I didn’t put the chicken tractors on the slightly sloping hill north of the hog building. I put the chicken tractors where I ran them last spring. That’s not ideal but it’s not awful either. It just is what it is.

Why didn’t I put the chicken tractors up north?


Because I still haven’t grazed and cleaned that field. It is full of saplings and dilapidated fencing and tree limbs and thorns, brambles and bric-a-brac. I need the cows to bulldoze, clean and fertilize it before I even attempt to drag a big metal box full of chickens across it.

So that’s the haps. Many of the broilers are in tractors on the field. Not all of the chickens. The forecast is calling for warm weather but it is also calling for an inch of rain tomorrow. An inch of rain can kill little birdies. I’ll have to come up with some tarps. It’s always something.

But I remain hopeful. Cautiously…

Melting Away

Weeks of cold and snow. Snow on March first. That may not seem like a big deal to readers further north but many years we have our first rows of peas and radishes in the garden at the end of February. Snow. Snow. Snow. I’m so tired of snow. Heck, the cows are tired of snow…tired of being locked in the barn lot. But now it is finally melting.


Which means mud. Mud, mud, mud. I’m so tired of mud.


Guess there’s no pleasing some people.

February’s average temperature was somewhere around negative infinity. This week the average high temperature is 55. That’s quite a change. So much of a change I doubt we’ll have a maple run this year. But it really saves my bacon because the chicks are ready to exit the brooder. A few more days of warmth and melting and runoff and we’ll get things going outside, a little at a time.

With tails and heels in the air the cows ran out to pasture today. Of course, two of them found a low place in the temporary fence and invited themselves to cross it. And to make things worse I put the heifers we weaned at Christmas back into the herd so there was a little pushing and shoving and other family reunion stuff. But then they put their heads down in fresh grass and went to work.


Not all of the pasture is snow-free. The north-facing slopes are still covered.


I’m hoping to keep the cows up high where drainage is good both for cow health and for pasture health. I don’t want to let them churn up a mud bog. I noticed a line in the snow where the cows grazed a month ago when they were last here. That line is where the fence stood, where the cows had trampled up to. The cows were reluctant to cross that line. Calves always lead the way.


Just making a few notes about the transition here. Should be nearly 60 degrees today. Hopefully that will take care of the remaining snow.

Brooder Blues

So after I bragged to the internet about how great I am at brooding chicks I have to talk about my failures too.

These are management issues. Totally management issues.

The blame falls on me. That’s it. I failed to follow through on a conversation Julie and I had. Julie moved a heat lamp to the third tank in preparation for moving birds. We just wanted to warm things up a little bit. We made a bad decision.

The second failure was a lamp burned out and we didn’t have a spare. I thought we could make it on two lamps.

The third failure was using a lamp that didn’t produce as much heat as expected. So the chicks in brooder #2 weren’t as warm as they should have been. And they all crowded up under one lamp.

The fourth failure is a lack of fresh bedding in the brooder. The remaining birds aren’t as clean as I would like them to be.

I should have bought extra lamps. I should have made sure the temperature under each lamp was consistent. I should have spread the birds out among the brooders immediately. I also rolled the dice on weather, trying to brood chicks when it’s negative infinity outside.

But here’s the end result. For four hours brooder #2 was a little cool. Over the following 48 hours 32 chicks died.

One little mistake.

I’ll recover from the loss of chicks. It hurts. It hurts badly. But I can never take back words said in anger and frustration.

My worst mistake in this was blaming others.

That too is a management issue.

Well, They Were Full…

The cows were checked at 3:00 in the afternoon. Everybody was fat, full, napping and chewing cud  in the sunshine so she decided they didn’t need another section of pasture for the day.

The next morning? Empty bellies all around.

What happened?

She looked at the wrong data.

You know to look at the cow’s left side, between the rib and the pelvis to see if there is an indentation or if the rumen is full, right? Cool. That’s what she did. The cows were full. But she didn’t look at the pasture.

When the cows got up in the middle of the night for a snack there was nothing left to eat. The cows were full at 3:00, seventeen hours later they were not.

Being people who want full cows, we took several lessons out of this experience. We have to look at the cow. That’s good. But we also have to judge the pasture. That is particularly difficult as everything looks brown to us and the cows seem to graze fairly selectively. But we have all kinds of pasture remaining ungrazed. All kinds…like 15 acres. And grass will start growing in a month so there is no need to be stingy with it.

And we have all kinds of hay remaining. As extra insurance, I’m going to just put out 20 or so small squares right in the paddocks so Julie just has to untie and spread them a little. If we offer too much hay and the cows use some for bedding the chickens will scratch it out later.

The cows didn’t get enough to eat overnight. One night of that treatment is not a huge deal. But it shouldn’t happen again tonight. Tonight they will get an extra move.

Strolling Through The Pasture January 2015

Let’s go for a walk, shall we?

There’s lots of grass out there. Just under the cemetery hill the fescue recovered completely since the last grazing some time in September…er…October…er…Fall.


It’s still pretty green down in the bottom. But across the little stream…


…in the woods there is little grass. The squirrels have been busy taking hedge apples apart. There is not much grass standing in there.

HedgeApplesAcross the fence to the 40 things are a little different. This is north of the hog building in a messy field full of buried field fence, broken fence posts, tree limbs, stumps and thorny trees.

HogLot1I have quite a bit of work to do in this field this spring. We intend to start the chicken tractors at the east end of the field and run them slightly downhill across the field. Should be awesome. But that will force me to clean up the mess out there. And it’s a big mess…including the log that looks like a dead cow.


Did I say it’s a mess? The remnants of fencing and watering supplies litter the area. I don’t even know what to do with this. I guess hook it back up and have a water supply…after I haul away the scrap.


Further east are the clover field to the north and the pasture where the cows are currently grazing to the south. I think we can safely say the cows are grazing the not-clover field. There was no clover out there last year. None. Not until dad and I cut hay and spread manure that is.


I didn’t graze the east field again after we cut hay. It’s a little hard to get to anyway so we just didn’t go there. I guess we had some seeds in our compost. No surprise, really, but it is a nice surprise to see evidence that clover once stood here. But not enough clover.


That’s all grass and weeds. I plan to overseed a mix of legumes to improve the pasture. That in addition to the seeds the cows deposit, the pasture should fill in with variety over time but I would rather speed things along. I like to see the mouse nests out in my fields. I’m glad to have something besides chicken for predators to hunt for…minks especially.


It is obvious where we cut hay on this field. I’m not sure what that little, scrubby gray weed is but cutting in July seemed to really set it back.


It is interesting that the cows came across their first growth of what I believe is big bluestem and they left it alone. They either just missed it or it didn’t smell like fescue and orchard grass.


Lots of brown grass and weed skeletons out there. The cows seem to relish it though. Much more than half of my farm remains ungrazed. More than half of my edible hay remains (more on that soon). We are sneaking up on February. I’m not saying we’re in the clear but I feel good about what’s happening. This walk wasn’t the entire farm as I have done in the past. This was just a straight line east from our house.

An Hour’s Worth of Sunday

I needed to fill the cow’s water tanks. I couldn’t do this early in the morning when I do my normal chores because (sigh) my hoses were frozen. It takes about 40 minutes to fill three tanks if I use different hydrants to fill two at once. What can I do with that time? Stare at the cows?


The cows are grazing in strips. I lay out a north-south strip roughly 40 paces wide and give them access to roughly 20 paces worth of pasture each day until we get through it. In addition to that, I maintain a corridor at the south fence line so the cows have access to mineral and water in a place that is fairly convenient to Julie and me as long as we keep the hoses well-drained on a slope. Which I didn’t do on Saturday. Anyway…


So I have most of an hour to kill. Cows are going to need a new strip. That’s not Julie’s favorite job but I think it’s fun. I start at the north end of the property because I want my spool at the south end. That allows for the ever-growing corridor to water and mineral. I stepped 40 paces off of the current fence to find my starting position.


I didn’t bring my fence remote with me so I can’t attach the fence at this time. But I don’t really need to yet.


Then I looked in the distance to try to find a target that looked roughly 40 paces from the other end of the current fence.


If you start at the thicket on the left and count over a few trees to the right you’ll come to a rounded cluster of sassafrass trees way over ther together. There’s a dark one in the center of the clump I’ll shoot for.


Let’s pause for a moment. I know a pace is not a standard unit of measure. It’s only marginally helpful to the reader for me to say that. I have a bakers dozen cows on pasture and I’m giving them an additional 60×120 each day. But the cows aren’t out there with a tape measure or a transit. The precision comes by watching the animals. Are they full? Are they clean? Are they calling out for dinner or are they grunting and burping? What are they leaving behind? Is the ground scalped or did they leave a protective blanket on the soil? That’s how you measure. It happens that I carry my feet with me so I use those to help guide me.


So I walked through hill and dale, leaving a string behind me. Always aiming for the tree in the distance…a tree I couldn’t always see.


Once I arrived at the southern fence I stepped off the gap between old and new…45 paces. Not bad. I mean, horrible from a percentage perspective but cows don’t calculate percentages. Good enough is good enough.


So I checked my water tank. A few minutes remaining.


With 15 posts in hand I headed off to the north placing a post every 12th pace. Well, 12 or so. I wasn’t really placing the posts, I was just spearing them into the ground. I’ll come back later with a hammer to drive them into the frozen earth.


15 got me halfway so I went back for more. While I was up there I moved the hose to the other trough.


It’s important to fence the ditches to contain the cattle. I do want the cows to cross the ditches, pushing earth around so the ditch becomes wide and shallow, rather than steep and deep. I want the water to meander slowly on its way, not cut into the earth violently. I could do this with a bulldozer but the cows are here so…


I’m a little particular about placing my insulators at ditches. I always want both forks of the insulator to touch the wire. That’s not possible in the dip but at the edges it’s no big whoop. I’m sorry if that is unclear. See how the insulators on each side of the creek face opposite directions? If they were turned the other way, on each side the wire would only be held by one hook. So any passing deer could easily knock my fence off of the insulator. After that the whole fence would short out as the wire rests against the metal post. This one small change ensures that the insulator will hang on to the wire as the deer bends the post, stretches the fence wire then releases somewhat magically as the string tension launches the insulator through the air to be found some time in the spring.


I stepped off the remaining pasture. If the weather holds we’ll finish up that pasture in mid-February. Then I’ll take the cows north of the hog building. There’s not a lot of pasture back there but I really want to clean that field up and I need the cows to help me find saplings, stumps and odd bits of junk.


Anyway, for now we are going from over there to over here.


By this time all of my tanks were full. I disconnected my hoses and left the posts speared in the ground until later in the afternoon. I like the cows to go to bed with full water tanks so I came back around 4:00 with the kids to top things off and drive the posts.


The kids needed to go outside and play. Barn cats are valid playmates.


We left mom at home though. After about 20 minutes the hoses were drained again, the chickens were watered, the eggs collected, the fence completed, the cows had hay and we made monster shadows.


The cows stayed on the hill.


We crossed the old bridge and ran up the hill.


I mean we ran. The kids were pretending to be in Minecraft and imagined that the darkening skies would soon allow skeletons and zombies and giant spiders to spawn. It helps to play through our day.

10 Cows, 6 Heifers, 2 Steers, 60 Acres

So you read the title, right? OK. So. That’s my little herd. We are growing. We are adding to our numbers each year and things are moving along. Someone recently asked me to clarify that I really only have 13 animals out on pasture for my remaining 30 acres of stockpile. But let’s remove the numbers for just a second.

I have enough pasture remaining to enable my cows to make it to April if I supplement their grazing with hay.

Do the numbers matter?

1. It’s all about me.
What if I just went out and bought 40 cows? I have 60 acres, I live in Illinois. Shouldn’t be a big deal, right? Well, it is a big deal. Remember, I’m a transplant from the city. Yes, I own my family farm but the generation before me packed up and left. My dad worked at a coal mine, took me fishing and played catch with me in our ranch-style suburban home. I had a model train and a pile of legos. How many of those 40 cows would I kill? I would just be scrambling to keep up out there. So I started with two. (Actually I started with chickens but…) Each year I add to the numbers. Each year Julie and I increase our knowledge, our ability, our understanding, our eye and we move forward. Hopefully we will graduate from cow college in 20 years but right now we still have everything to learn.

Also, don’t overlook the costs involved in 40 cows, hay for 40 cows (cause our grass won’t cut it…more in a bit), and time for 40 cows. I have a job. I have a good job. But I don’t have that kind of cash just laying around.

2. It’s all about the grass.
My pastures are pretty poor, really. I have forests of goldenrod, forests of thorny things and pure stands of fescue. Not enough shade. Not enough water. Not what you want for 40 cows. 40 cows, supplemented with hay on pasture year round, would do a tremendous amount of work trampling my goldenrod and moving my pastures forward but that’s not leveraging our strengths. That’s ignoring…or foolishly running roughshod over our weaknesses. It was interesting to watch our pastures recover this year. I have a bare, compacted, south-facing slope by the house that was almost a pure stand of clover this year. What will it do next year? The east 40 was almost entirely devoid of clover except where dad planted it. What happens this coming year? Forages are changing on the farm, some of them intentionally so but it takes time. I could fill the farm with cows and may still be able to manage it with time but the base forage just isn’t here. The temptation would be to simplify feeding hay to my 40 cows by bringing them to the lot each day. Then I would be back where I started. Sigh.


3. Wrong cow, right job.
My genetics are not in place yet. I have a few prospects that we have high hopes for but we aren’t there. I need a small cow (nope) that does well on grass alone (nope). Ideally she would give milk for 90 days then dry up on her own. She would re-breed quickly and easily, fatten on nothing at all and would last 14-20 years leaving 12-18 calves in her wake. One of her sons would be retained as a sire for the next herd of the future. But that’s not what I have. I have cows that will probably come up open in a year or two and that will be that. Then what? Buy in more of the same? Breed to a devon bull?


As I learn more, as my soil health improves and pasture diversity increases and as my herd changes more toward our grazing ideal I won’t need 30 acres for 13 cows. But right now I do and mostly because of item #1. Grass grows. Cows eat. I’m the weak link. But I’m working on it. Let’s revisit that King Ranch quote from a few days ago because I think it’s appropriate here. Keep in mind, the numbers they list are for an organization that knows what they are doing, ranching on cheap land in a tropical paradise.

Unlike most manufacturing, the ranching business is a slow start-up. It takes years to bring raw land to a good grass yield and to breed up a herd to the point of turning off quality and quantity beef. Though the company operated seven years, it was only in the last six months that it generated its first net profit, $600.

I think this fits under the thinking that one should simply start…and start small. You don’t know what you don’t know and it takes years to find out. And I didn’t even touch on marketing. What would I do with 40 calves? At this point, my marketing reach is insufficient. So…grow as you go. But go. Don’t say no. I mean it, there so! Marvin K. Mooney.

BTW, this post is entirely academic. The cows are on deep bedding this week as it is particularly cold out. I have had to learn we can’t outwinter the jerseys and it really is easier to keep the team together than to split the jerseys off from the shorthorns and…ugh. Water. Freezes.

Philosophy of Grass, Hay and Making Cows Happy

I love those big, flashy titles.

After my previous post on winter grazing I had a thought-provoking comment from a reader. In short, she pointed out that I’m not just grazing and I’m not just feeding hay. I’m doing both. Yup. And let’s talk about that. It’s philosophically different than other resources I pointed to in that post. Jim Gerrish wrote a book called “Kicking the Hay Habit” and Jim Elizondo has a DVD about Hayless winter grazing…and somehow, in spite of the fact that I’m feeding hay to my cattle, I pointed to those resources to support my routine.

Well. I stand by it. Here is another resource to further stack the cards against me. I ain’t skeered.

Mr. Elizondo avoids hay by offering flaxseed meal mixed with salt, allowing the cows to digest highly lignified forages. Mr. Gerrish, as I understand, just grazes like the fellas in the video. Let’s keep piling on counter-examples. Greg Judy, as I understand, only feeds hay if there’s a bad ice storm. Gabe Brown? Dunno. Somebody look it up and comment for me, will you?

So where do I get off stockpiling grass AND still feeding hay AND bragging about it on the internets? Just who do I think I am?

I’m me. I have my pastures. I deal with my problems. I listen to my cows. They tell me (by way of manure) they would not perform without hay. Some of this is because I have the wrong cows. Some of this is because I have the wrong pastures. But I’m honest and observant enough to assess livestock health and caring enough to address their needs. They need a little extra protein. But they certainly benefit from the standing forage. So I run a hybrid. Then the cows eat fresh plantain in the winter.


The idea, as spelled out to me by David Hall some time ago, is to feed one month’s worth of hay over 5 months and ask the animals to deliver the fertility across the farm over time. He further said he could normally buy a round bale of good quality hay for $20-$25 (little different here in the midwest, eh?) and gain $18 worth of fertilizer value…so he buys hay. Doesn’t make hay, different discussion for a different day.

So that’s the plan. We stockpiled basically the whole farm. We still have 30 acres to graze. To keep the cows healthy we need to give a little extra protein and I feed that in the form of hay. So here I am. Standing right in the middle. We may move toward the world of no hay but I’m not there yet. Some of that is my skill level. Some is my level of faith. Some is the genetics I currently own. Some because of the condition of my soil. But whatever the reason, that’s what I do. And it seems to be working out OK.

Some of this thinking would apply if I was feeding hay during a summer drought. Keep the cows on the move, add feed to help them over the hump, measure protein needs as they are grazing highly lignified summer stockpile. However, if we can recognize the drought early we can liquidate our least valuable stock early on and maintain a much smaller herd throughout. But that’s for another day too.

One last thing. I do need to improve my pastures. The density of animal impact and …erm…cow…erm…residue will build soil health. Plus we are working to spread compost, lime and run chickens over the farm, only helping things further. But wait there’s more. 5-6 pounds of red clover per acre to be applied in the next month. Should I apply that seed ahead of the cows so they can mash it into the soil with their hooves or should I follow behind the cows, letting freeze/thaw cycles plant the seeds for me? Dunno. Maybe a little of both? Cause that’s, apparently, how I roll.