The end of winter feeding

We have two seasons here on the farm. Grazing season, and winter feeding. The goal on a cattle farm is to make grazing season last as long as possible, thereby shortening winter feeding to be as short as possible. Winter feeding involves purchased hay, which is a large expense on a cattle farm.

Part of achieving that goal is completely counterintuitive though. Step one is to keep the cows off of our pastures as long as possible in the spring. This lets our grass get a good jump on growth, establish plenty of leaf material, and be more than ready to graze. That means grass that is at least 12″ tall before we turn the cows on it. The cows then graze off about 4-5″ of grass in their one day grazing rotation, leaving 7-8″ of grass soaking up the sun and steady making new grass to eat. By leaving grass behind, we actually grow more grass long term because the grass is a much more efficient solar collector when we leave some leaf material. Basically we have more grass on the second grazing than if we turned them in early and/or let them eat more of the grass.

before grazing, with grazing marker in view.
Before grazing, the grass is full and lush. 100% ground coverage and averaging 12″ tall.

Back in February, when it was 80 degrees and it seemed that summer was nearly here, we had grass that was already 6″ tall and looking great. I had a wall of hay left and we were discussing how long till our momma cows went to our leased farm, and what we were going to do with all the leftover hay.

Enter March. Which was colder than February on the East coast. Argh! March is supposed to be when spring has sprung. Instead it snowed, it has frozen all the buds off of my fruit trees, and as I sit here on April 10th, typing away, I’m still wearing long pants, shoes, an overshirt, a vest, and I’m cold. Basically my winter apparel. I should be in shorts and flip flops in April, in NC.

Yesterday we fed our last bale of hay. We ran out. Today our cows go onto grass that is basically the same height as it was in February. The sun hasn’t been out, except on cold clear days, and I cannot recall an 80 degree day although we are supposed to finally get to 80 degrees by Friday. Instead of being well ahead of the curve, this cold weather has us behind. No hay, not enough grass, and cows that need some fattening up asap. We’ll be fine, once the heat shows up the grass will explode and we’ll be playing catchup. We have so much organic matter in our soil that the grass really responds once it has some spring weather to work with. But I don’t like running up against the edge of things.

The good news is we’ll be able to start our tours going back out to the herd in their daily paddocks. And the sacrificial paddock will finally be able to start recovering. I flew over the farm a few weeks ago with a cadet while on an O flight. It looked green, except for where the grass hasn’t recovered yet, which was a fairly large area. It kinds looked like the farm had been bombed. I’m looking forward to my next flight and seeing everything green everywhere!

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Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

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