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.

3 thoughts on “Philosophy of Grass, Hay and Making Cows Happy

  1. Gabe Brown feeds hay on pasture in winter. His take is that when the snow makes it tough for the cattle to get down to the grass, it’s time for hay. The web doesn’t seem to have a lot of written stuff for Gabe Brown, but there are plenty of videos. Here’s one that I think is pertinent:

    My own perspective is that there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. Different places and people have different limitations and advantages and so I think every solution will be unique. What you’re doing with your feeding out makes complete sense to me – for you. Ground around here is too soggy for cattle to be on without ruining almost as badly as pigs would.

  2. Impressive reminder on gaining fertilizer value on the hay – at face value he shows 72-90% of the cost recouped as fertilizer! Hard to say how many lbs the bales are or your local cost but you do still get fertilizer out of the deal.

    For what it is worth I think you are doing the right thing with feeding both pasture and hay. As you pointed out before, you can’t just take cows from a feedlot background and expect them to go without hay starting this winter. If Elizondo or Jim Gerrish were your neighbors and you could just wander down the road and buy cows from them that were already used to the hayless program, already adjusted to the climate and forage in your area that would be different. You are starting from scratch, as those guys likely did at some point before going hayless. You are creating a herd that can graze all winter long with some supplementation and as quality and fertility of your pastures increases you can evaluate then if you go hayless. Not an overnight thing, this yr your science shows hay at approx .7% bw (body weight) of hay per animal, next yr maybe .4-.5 % as determined daily by condition, the following yr who knows – their condition will tell you.

    We don’t know the protein % of your standing forage and if it is lower than the fall #’s I found the other day, as you suspect, and will decrease as winter progresses along it seems you may always need to supplement with protein whether that is hay, flaxseed or other, or make the decision to accept less gain. It sure would seem valuable to know your standing forage protein % every mth for all the months you feed hay so you could approximate what you have and help you move forward with forecasting carry capacity as your herd grows. $20 a pop for the test for 6 mths? – seems worth it says she not paying the bill 😉

    What is the current cost of your hay for the cows if you were to buy these in Your Area – like are your round alfalfa bales ?750? lb bales x ie $50? x 17? bales total? = $850. Plus X # of grass squares x ie $5? bale = ? So total cost of hay set aside for the cows this winter is grand total $___ and total approx weight is ____lbs. I know you have some waste with mold this yr – any guesstimate on total waste %? Then total lbs less estimated waste = X ___lbs.

    Can you refresh my memory on your current herd size this hay is projected to feed along with the pasture? Is it 3 Jersey cows, 3 jersey calves? 5 ?bred? cows, 1 Miss White and 4 shorthorn calves? For a total of 16 head?

    What are your calves doing right now? Same grazing and hay program??

    SSF already answered the Gabe Brown winter feed Q. He does winter grazing until snow is too deep, grazing fields also where there is no water using snow instead

  3. Everyone’s circumstance is unique. The goal is to do the best you can with what you have at the time. Thank you for sharing what you are doing, and accomplishing, on your farm. Moving forward one day at a time!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s