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.

Snowmelt1

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

Snowmelt3

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.

CowsBackOut

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

Snowmelt2

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.

DangerCalf

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

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.

It’s a Long Walk

My oldest and I attended the Southern Indiana Grazing Conference a few years back. First, I want to express how valuable that conference was to me personally. Every speaker gave me pages of notes I still act on. Gabe Brown was one of those speakers. Just as a side note, Gabe mentioned that cows have legs and a little walk does them good. He grazes through the winter but if the cows want a drink they have to walk back to the barn.

Walk.

CowsWalking

If nothing else, it helps their digestion. Might work for you too. Maybe you should go for a walk. The netting you see in the picture above is for the chickens. That’s not the cow fence.

My cows don’t have to walk too far. Just through a couple of small valleys and they only seem to make the trip once/day. They mostly just drink from a stream that is somehow still running when it’s below freezing out there.

They were just hanging out today. Mrs. White is a noisy cud chewer. (Mrs. White has red on her face. Look, man. I don’t name them. The white one is Snowball or 13.)

I want to make a note about the heifer dust. It’s looking a little…erm…firm. I’ll have to keep an eye on that and may need to up the protein somehow.

The title of this post was inspired by David Allan Coe. It’s a long walk to Nashville. Just FYI.

Back to the Barn. Again.

I keep the cattle on pasture as much as I feel like I can. Feel. We play it by ear. I don’t want to pamper my cows but I also don’t think it’s good for them to be out in rain on a 33 degree night when the temperature is dropping. Especially when it’s so easy to just open a gate and stand up a temporary fence so they can be warm and dry in the barn. I am also concerned for the pasture itself. Plus, it’s no fun walking way out in the pasture to check cows when it’s sleeting and the wind is blowing. Let’s save the farmer (Julie) a little trouble.

MrsWhiteSycamore

Saturday’s forecast keeps changing from 3-5″ of snow to half an inch of rain and back again. They can’t seem to decide. Either way the cows will come in Friday evening. No soupy pastures. No cold, muddy cows.

Take a look at the picture above. That’s fresh ground. The cows are always moving to fresh ground. There are good root systems under the standing grasses, plenty of stuff above ground…we don’t let it get all trampled, manured and soupy. It is getting torn up around the mineral feeder though. That’s on me. For the most part, we are adding manure without degrading the forage stand. That’s a big part of the plan to move cows in before the storm.

CattleBarn

Please understand, this is not a prescription. The world is full of cattle living life outdoors. This is just us doing what we are doing this weekend. I’m not telling you how to do it. I’m making a judgement call and a note in my journal. “On January 30 we took the cows to the barn because of weather.”

Friday morning or Friday evening I have to find time to move a dozen or so square bales of hay to the cattle barn and a half dozen bales of straw. There is no loft in the cattle barn. Note to self: Add “Build a loft in the cattle barn” in May to the year’s work list. Also add “Cut wood for loft with sawmill” in April/May and “Cut trees for sawmill” in February.

Saturday the cows and I will be indoors. They will be chewing cud. I working my way through a small stack of books and a big cave in Minecraft.

While My Bovine Gently Eats

Try singing the title. Try singing the title to the tune of a Beatles song. Too much of a stretch? Oh well.

Cows are still locked in the barn as we are expecting freezing rain/ice starting around noon on Sunday. They have backed way off on the severity of the forecast but I prefer to err on the side of caution. The cows, however, are ready to be back on pasture. They have been getting all the alfalfa hay they want as well as some salted grass/clover mix they seem to like. I put them out on grass in a small corner of fence near the barn today and they were happy cows! I don’t really know if the grass is fresh or tasty or what but the cows went bananas for it. Twoey decided to look up for a second just in case I was up to something. (3M2…2…Twoey. You understand if you have a few animals around.)

Twoey

While my cows were busy gently eating grass I closed them out of the feedlot. That gave me a chance to break the ice out of the water tubs and refill them, move the hay ring around a fresh bale of hay, leaving the remainder of the bale for the cows to munch on, lay on or whatever. Mostly what is left of the old bale is hay they rejected so it should be pulled aside and composted but they later seemed to enjoy rubbing their polls on it and munching a little bit here and there so…whatever.

RoundBale

I also decided bed the dickens out of the barn. We started, again, with six loads of sawdust. When I say “we” I mean dad and I. He ran the tractor for me. With the loader tractor we did as much work in about 4 hours as we would have done with a wheelbarrow in about four Saturdays.

Sawdust

The jack barn is full of round bales of straw that are at least 20 years old. They have been burrowed into by all sorts of critters and aren’t bales anymore, just piles in roundish shapes. I even saw a coyote bedding down in there last winter. Dad and I started hauling out load after load of straw from there.

Straw

At some point is appropriate for the reader to ask, “Chris, isn’t that an awful lot of bedding?”

Yeah, I guess it is. But let’s talk about bedding here for a minute. Each year I buy two truckloads of sawdust (totaling $270 tops) and 100 bales of straw (totaling $150). So for less than $500 I get all the bedding I need for cows, pigs, brooders, greenhouses, horses, composting toilets…you get the idea.

“So, Chris, haven’t you put an awful lot of money into bedding this barn down?”:

Proportionally speaking? Yes. So let’s talk about that a little bit. Why am I bedding the cows so deeply? (Horses too for that matter…) I’m doing it because I want dry, clean, warm livestock what don’t have to smell the ammonia they produce. I’m also doing it because I want to add value to my straw and sawdust.

That’s right. I said it. And I’ll say it again. Poopy sawdust is worth more than clean sawdust. Just ask my pastures next summer! Leaving the straw sitting unused in the barn shows that I misallocated capital in acquiring that material. Actually using that material for its intended purpose is…well…what you’re supposed to do…and the faster I turn that inventory the better! Why buy the straw if you’re not going to use it?

But wait! There’s more! The more manure I can pack into this bedding the better. So why am I building it up so much? Why am I stacking it so deep? I mean, if I’m not careful the cows will be rubbing their backs on the beams. So please don’t be concerned that I’m being wasteful with my bedding. I’m not. The cows have a thick, fluffy bed/toilet but there is more.

The reason I’m putting so much down is because I’m building additional capacity into our bedding so I can keep my pigs here in a few months. By mixing pig manure into my cow bedding I’ll broaden the nutrient spectrum of my future compost while also aerating it by way of pig noses…adding even more value to the straw and sawdust. And by the time we are finished with the pigs in the barn we will also be finished brooding chicks in the spring so I’ll have that spectrum of fertility to add to the mix. Top that off with a little dose of lime and we have a winner.

So…to sum it up…my cows like eating grass and I like to shovel manure. And today would have been awful if dad hadn’t shown up to help. The end.

Thoughts on Deep Bedding

Our cows must think we are room service. They didn’t even get up yesterday when Julie added a bale of straw. Things are pretty comfy in the barn. Air can blow through as the building is not tight but the wind is slowed considerably. That’s a good thing for getting rid of ammonia but the better way to deal with ammonia is to capture it in carbon. Further, the deep bedding, once it builds mass, becomes a living, composting entity of its own. We started with the sawdust. 6 buckets of oak sawdust.

Sawdust

I spread that evenly over about half of the barn. Why only half? Because the barn is huge and the herd is small. We used corral panels later to cut the cows off from the rest of the building. I could either bed the whole thing or have my bedding twice as deep. We topped off the sawdust with four square bales of straw. Each day we add a bale of straw, more if needed.

It is interesting how quickly that first layer of bedding gets soiled or otherwise worked into the barn floor. We add bedding every day for several days until, finally, we seem to reach some critical mass and the bedding needs taper off considerably. The calves are at that point now except in front of their feeder. That sees such heavy traffic there is no hope for it. If the cows stay here for long the bedding will build up to a nice, thick layer. I think they will only be here for the week though.

ChewingCud

There really isn’t much for the cows to do these days. They get up and eat. They lay down and chew their cud. They walk to the water tanks. They lay down and chew their cud. I put a little kelp and a little salt in the feed bunk but otherwise, that’s the life of the cow hotel.

FeedBunk

There is a round bale of alfalfa available at all times and we offer grass/clover square bales twice each day. They really seem to want the grass. We feed them outdoors because that’s the current setup. I have the bunks. The cows are there. No big whoop.

I have to say, this isn’t really any easier or necessarily harder than having the cows on pasture. I have a little less walking and water is easier to manage but I’m have to bring the feed to them stored feed and bedding. The cows are, I think, better off. We’re in for a few days of cold weather and it’s far below what we want to subject our pet milk cows to. The shorthorns don’t seem to care either way but I don’t want to split the herd so here we are.

No pictures of manure today. You can bet I looked at it though. It looked nice…as far as manure goes anyway.

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.

Jan2015

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?

Happy

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.

Plantain

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.

Straight Poop about Winter Grazing

I am using a highly sophisticated, scientific method for grazing our cattle this winter. This process will be hard for the average farmer to duplicate so I release this information with a measure of reluctance. I’m not sure how useful it really is. This post relies heavily on two expensive and precise scientific tools to measure feed quality and quantity…a pitchfork and size 11.5 feet. I should also alert the reader, based on recent conversations, that this post will show pictures of cow manure. Lots of cow manure. Further, it will have explicit descriptions of cow manure. In fact, I may even discuss the philosophy of cow manure. The Zen of cow manure. Don’t misunderstand, this is a post about what my cows eat…but you have to pay close attention to the other end of the cow too. Let’s look at a sample. Here we have a rare sight indeed! Cow manure covered in coyote poop. You have to walk through a lot of pasture before you see one like this…complete with persimmon seeds in the coyote poop.

Click for source

If you are really interested in seeing coyote poop on cow poop, complete with persimmon seeds you can click here. If you clicked on that you’re weird. I know because I’m an authority on weird. I took the picture. Here’s a bonus. Coyote tracks in cow manure. Believe me, you have to look at a lot of cow pies to find one of those. So…I look at a lot of cow manure. I take pictures of cow manure. I think cow manure is important. You down? Anyway, I have cows. Hooray for cows! I have cows because I need something to eat my grass. Hooray for grass! RemainingGrass So I ask my cows to eat my grass. Have you read Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook? That’s what we are talking about here…except on acres and acres of farmland. The cows aren’t eating fresh forage that is actively growing…cause nothing is growing. They are eating forage we grew in August, September and October and stored in the field for later consumption. Winter harvest. And it’s mostly grass because the poor legumes just can’t take the cold…and other reasons I’ll get into in a minute. However, if my cows only eat grass this time of year they will get a bit constipated. There just isn’t a lot of protein in the grass that is out there. Fescue, apparently, does well in the cold but I have not done a formal forage analysis. I just turn the cows into a new area, make sure they are full, in condition and I look at their poop. Science! (Cue Thomas Dolby.) As I said above, if I expect the cows to ONLY eat the standing forage their stool tends to get a little dry. Their manure looks like a stack of cookies that fell over. There is some good forage out there that they seem to like but it’s not, I think, everything they need. Here’s some dry manure from last winter as an example. GrazingJanuary3 What we really want is pictured below. A nice, clean pile with a depression in the middle. A cow pie that looks like a pie. Perfect poop. I get this by supplementing the protein in their diet with high-protein hay. Others use a protein lick. Still others use grains. But the idea is the same. By offering a little supplementation you can not only fit more animals in the same area, you can utilize resources that would otherwise go wasted and you can concentrate fertility where it is needed most. PerfectPie So. Quiz time. What’s what here? GoodBadUgly OK, so that’s why I give them a little alfalfa hay. How much alfalfa? Oh, I don’t know. Some. (Science again.) I put out maybe 50 pounds of hay in the morning and another 50 pounds in the evening giving each cow around 7 pounds of alfalfa. I don’t carry a scale, man. Assuming the cows average about 1,000 pounds they are probably consuming another 13-15 pounds of dry matter by grazing. That’s about where we want it. I don’t want to provide more than about 30% of their dry matter from alfalfa…both because I have a limited supply and because it’s not good for them. We will measure “not good” in a minute. Before I go on I need to point out something. My pastures are brand new. Not new like freshly seeded to yummy things to eat. New like we aren’t even on a full year of managed grazing yet. The forages are just whatever came up. Whatever was left over after the tenant’s cows ate it down to the nubbins. So what is there is what is there. And what is there isn’t quite the balanced meal a cow needs. It just isn’t out there…not yet anyway. Not in terms of varieties, not in terms of soil health, not in terms of plant health, not in terms of cow health. So at this point I HAVE TO provide a little extra. We graze a strip that is measured in similarly scientific manner. Here’s the plan, I need to cover enough ground each day to keep my cows in top condition but only as much ground as I absolutely have to so my forage lasts until April or May. This recipe will change as my herd grows and as forage density varies but, for now, where we are grazing, I begin by laying out two parallel fences roughly 40 steps apart by aiming for points in the distance that I think are roughly 40 steps apart. So we’re 40-ish paces wide, right? Now I step off 20-ish paces for each day’s allotment and call it good. That packs the cows in tight enough that they are utilizing a high percentage of the available forage, they are full when I come back to see them in the morning and, just as important, their manure is distributed evenly – and heavily – throughout the pasture. Healthy cows like to lay in clean places. By growing into a new 20 steps each day the cows lounge in a new spot each day. What is the first thing a cow does when it stands up? Coverage But wait! There’s more. I need to see if the cows are full or not. Any cow will do but the shorthorns are super-shaggy. The Jerseys are not. I have one Jersey I can rely on as my fuel gauge. I can see when she is full. If she is full, everybody is full. And I want full cows. Full means that triangle on her left side is not sunken in…or not sunken in by much. And it shouldn’t be sunken in when you go to move the herd. Here is a pic of Mrs. White last winter when she ran empty due to poor management (me). EmptyRumen She looks better this year. I feel like I’m doing a better job. MrsWhite2014 As an aside, how do you keep a cow warm on a cold night? You keep her full. Keep that biology burning inside her. How do you keep a cow warm on a cold, wet night? Put her indoors. Saves your pasture too. By metering out my pasture like this I can make it last into spring. Further, I am not only budgeting my land, I’m leaving something in the account at each location. If needed, I could graze here again. I can also benefit from the even covering of manure all over my pasture. It’s like a war zone out there. First, it will boost fertility in the coming growing season, second I don’t have to haul it. Less work is more better. But the best thing of all is this: The cows eat everything. A little of this, a little of that, trample and manure on what’s left. They eat everything green. (Cows have not grazed on the right.) BeforeAfter Now, our friend Kari asked if the cows would return to eating grass once they were given hay. I really don’t know how to answer that question…other than, “Yes?” But really I’m thinking, “What? Of course? I’m Ron Burgundy?” I don’t even know what that means. Our cows don’t go back and forth, they get both…unless I have to take them to the barn during a weather event. Then they seem to look forward to eating fresh greens again. So my answer is, “Yes?” Maybe I have magic pasture. Maybe I have magic cows. Maybe both? I’m telling you, Fescue is an unfair advantage in the winter. They dig through the snow to get to it. This helps offset the MAJOR disadvantages of fescue in the summer. But I think this is the real answer. Consistency. Cows like routines. My neighbor’s cows know silage is coming in the morning. They hear the tractor and they start to drool. My cows know I’m coming to open a fence in the morning. If you keep switching things up in their diet not only does their rumen have to adjust, the animal has to feel stressed to some degree. Like I do when Julie moves the furniture around…I’m a creature of habit. SnowGrazing Forage slowly degrades over the season. By last March they were eating anything and everything. Brown grass? Brown leaves? Green tips of trees? You name it. We increased the amount of hay we offered each day as we got closer to grass growing again…as we got closer to running out of pasture…as we increased our confidence that our hay supply would last. As we continue grazing, as we continue building soil, as we continue building health and life we should see our supply of green stuff stretch. We may even reach a point where we don’t need hay anymore. But I’m not holding my breath. March2014_7 And even if the cows ignore the majority of the organic material out there (and they don’t), they still benefit from the little bit of fresh green and deliver the manure for me. So what if I take them a little hay? You know what the difference is between taking hay to a feed bunk and taking hay to the field is? Mud. And the good news is we have some excellent quality grass hay. Grass stems are thinner and easier to put up than alfalfa. The weaned calves seem to want a percentage of this in their diet…even though their stool is a little dry. GrassHay I don’t keep my cows outside all the time. I could. Some do. But I don’t. When it’s raining and turning colder I think the cows are better off covered and warm. When it’s cold and muddy my pasture is better off without cattle. Sometimes it’s just easier to be a farmer if the cows are in the feedlot eating hay. My friend Matron prefers to keep them up close for all reasons above. But the same rules apply there. Keep the cows full. Look at the poop. If they sneeze and squirt their neighbor you might back off on the protein. You might also be concerned for their well-being. How do you feel when you get loose? Provided they aren’t sick (always give clean water), give just enough protein supplement to help them digest the rest of their feed. I use alfalfa hay to supplement protein. Jim Elizondo offers flaxseed meal. Guess what he says?

Then watch manure, gut fill and body condition to determine if they need protein…

Ta da! Then, check this out Kari:

I haven’t had success with moving cows to a high protein forage and then back to low-protein old forage on a daily basis, so I prefer to finish the higher quality forage first as it will lose quality the fastest.

In that quote Jim is explaining why we hit the alfalfa field early on. We got the high-quality forage out of the way because it would be the first and the fastest to lose quality. Now we work through the rest of the pasture. The remaining pasture needs a little help so we get proper rumen function. He supplements with flaxseed meal, I give high-legume hay grown right here in River City. And maybe that’s why your neighbors aren’t seeing success. Maybe they are trying to go back and forth on forage quality. I’m not going back and forth. I’m supplementing consistently. Heads are down in the pasture. FrostyCowsI don’t know if this will work at your farm, with your forages, with your cattle, in your climate. I don’t know. Apparently the PNW isn’t the best place to try…which makes me want to try. It seems to work here but I have had neighbors tell me I’m wrong…that my cows may as well be eating straw. “If you think it will work or it won’t you’re probably right.” AMIRIGHT? If you want to know more, feel free to ask questions. I don’t know either but it’s fun to learn together. I think it’s also worth your time to check out Jim Elizondo’s DVD and Jim Gerrish’s books. Even if you can’t directly apply their work you can probably find inspiration and direction.

I want to add one more thing to this post. The cows have a wide variety of minerals available to them right now. They are hitting the phosphorus particularly hard right now. Because they have the minerals they need, they tend to utilize their forage better and they tend to eat less. But if you read the Jim Elizondo link above you know that already.

One Freezty, Frosty Morning

Was out working before sunrise and didn’t really notice the frost until the first rays of light revealed it to me. Frosted grass, frosted weeds, frosted cows. It has been rainy and wet for the last week and it made for a beautiful morning.

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Turning back to look at the truck…

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I turned the cows into a new grazing area as we do every morning. I think we still have 30 acres of standing forage to munch through. The shorthorns seem to like it. The Jerseys nibble a little but they know hay is coming.

FrostyCowsI brought them a few forks of hay off of a round bale. I prefer to feed hay this way. I can sort the good from the bad (bales are pretty bad this year) and they don’t turn the whole bale into a bed. Very little waste this way. I just carry each forkful to a clean spot in the pasture as I cross over the perimeter fence. Maybe you can’t tell but the cows have grazed the pasture in the foreground pretty hard. I’m leaving a lot of brown forage behind to protect and feed the soil as well as a couple of standing weed skeletons.

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What a beautiful morning. The sun will be up soon.

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