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.

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.

Strolling Through the Pasture Dec. 2014

Fescue. Cool season grass. Puts on massive growth in the spring and again in the fall. In the heat of summer it gets infected with fungus and is not a good thing for the cows to eat…at least not in isolation. It can make tips of tails fall off and cows can lose their hooves. Bad mojo. As part of a balanced breakfast though, it’s OK. We try to keep a good mix of clovers and warm season plants growing to dilute the worst of it. There is some thinking that cattle genetics play a part in fescue tolerance. Dunno.

But in the winter things really heat up. Fescue comes into its own. The last thing the cows would eat during the summer becomes the last thing available to eat in the winter but the first thing they graze out. And the protein goes up as the temperature goes down, though, obviously, the feed quality deteriorates over time. The cows are currently grazing orchard grass and the remaining alfalfa in the alfalfa field. We are strip grazing our way across 17 acres we started grazing in October. At that time the alfalfa was still fresh and proved to be difficult for me to manage so we took a few weeks off and grazed…you guessed it…fescue while we waited for a hard freeze to take the edge off of the alfalfa. Now we are trying to wrap up the alfalfa grazing by the end of the month…hopefully before it gets smashed to the ground by a heavy, wet snow. The orchardgrass isn’t faring poorly but it just doesn’t seem to stand up to the cold the way fescue does. (BTW, the fescue the cattle grazed in October has recovered sufficiently for another grazing. I may have gained a week or two of pasture.)

When the alfalfa field ends the fun begins. You already know the players involved, let’s take a look at the game board. Starting things off this year is the hill just east of the yellow house. This hill has been resting since summer and is ready to play. Well, maybe I let it sit a little too long.


Let’s look at it a little more closely. The green is good. The cows will eat all of the green and because fescue is waxy, it will stay green for most of the winter. A fair portion of the brown will be eaten too. In fact, if I would supplement their diet with protein (and I may) they will eat the majority of the brown too. Otherwise it will be shoved into the dirt in mass. How much mass? Here’s a bundled up, heavily layered, rubber booted Julie to show you.


Not our best fescue but not bad either. We have to get from here (at the edge of the alfalfa field where the cows are)…


all the way over to here (the clover field we grazed until October). We will do this by grazing from south to north in narrow strips from west to east. Hopefully we’ll have two months worth of grazing here supplemented by a bit of hay cut from the clover field I am standing in.


I want to pause briefly to talk about the clover field. This time last year it was corn stubble being grazed by my cousin’s cattle. I use “cousin” somewhat loosely on the blog. My cousin lives around the corner. I have other first cousins all over the place. Can’t swing a dead cat… This guy is mom’s cousin’s son. Or something. Nice guy. Anyway…clover field. Dad worked it lightly in the spring. Really, he just dragged a disc across it to knock down the high points and make a shallow seed bed. Then, with 15 mph winds blowing, he used the antique seed spreader to broadcast a mix of 60% legumes on the field. Turned out great. We got one cutting of hay from it (pretty good stuff considering how wet the season was) and grazed it once. After the grazing it looked a little like this:


Today it looks a little like this:


Good soil coverage. Good contact between litter and soil. Some amount of recovery. Some amount of residual feed.


If I get in a bind I could graze these 9 acres again but I would have to move the cattle quickly. It’s just nice to have insurance. Lots of rabbit trails in this post. Why stop now? You wouldn’t believe the deer in this field. Geez. They bent posts and knocked down fence every morning.


The hill to the east…um…this is getting confusing. See Julie standing in the shattercane several pictures up? (Look, I know I shouldn’t have shattercane, OK?) OK. She is south of me (Chris Jordan, photographer, farmer, gentleman, scholar). The cows are further to the south in the alfalfa field. On the left side of that picture, up on the flat, the cows grazed in the spring then dad and I cut some of the best hay we put up last year. Just wonderful stuff. It was hard to get there as the hills are steep and the valleys are deep but we cut the flat top. Oldest boy and I had to cut and drag brush ahead of dad when he was mowing. Not only was the hay wonderful stuff, I came back with I don’t know how many loads of manure and lime and covered the field. It recovered nicely and is now free of brush…like the thorny sapling pictured further up. You can see a line on the field where the mower ran. I think this is a practice we will continue. By taking a single cutting of hay and applying amendments from each field every few years I can mix up the level of disturbance in my fields…also it gives me a chance to manage things even more closely while also supplying me with the feed we need. Looks good on paper anyway.

Fescue5OK. So. Now. How long can I keep talking about fescue and running rabbit trails in a blog post? Do you really want to know? It’s not just fescue out there. There are perennial warm season grasses growing out there too. Unless I am mistaken, that’s big bluestem growing in the center. I didn’t plant it. It just showed up here and there in this field. The cattle were probably never in this field when the bluestem was growing. How many years has it been since these grasses were allowed to grow?

BluestemWe covered about 15 acres in pictures today. Some of our fescue looks a little raunchy so I’m worried I’ll have to feed more hay than we expected. There are places where the chickens manured that the fescue looks better. In coming years I need to leverage my chickens more completely but it’s hard to get them to some of the remote hills. Building a pond out there will really help with field access. (Someday…) It is encouraging to see the increasing diversity of plant material. Last spring this field was defined by bare places between plants. Almost no clover anywhere. No residue on the soil. No manure to be found. Just short grass and bare soil as it looked last April.


But that recovered to a thick carpet of fescue. Almost nothing but fescue. Yuk.

WideViewWe grazed it lightly. Then again. Look how fat they are!


Then we went away for the summer and fall. Now I am relying on my savings. Will I be totally hayless? Nope. But the urine and manure will be delivered all over the farm without mechanical intervention. The cows will be harvesting the majority of their calories without mechanical intervention. They will have fresh greens to eat all through the year and the soil will remain covered. If things work out, I should have greater diversity, increased fertility and increased drought resistance in the upcoming growing season. And fat cows.

It looks good on paper anyway. We’ll talk again in April.

I had a hard time naming this post. Here were some candidates:

Fescue to the Rescue

Fescue on the Menue

Fescu on the Menu

Those are weak titles but the best Julie and I could come up with. Dive straight into the comments if you have a better idea. I think the “Strolling…” series should make a comeback in 2015.