As I’ve said before, we feed a lot of fresh produce to our cows every day. One of the side effects of feeding all this produce is that some of the seeds end up germinating and growing new plants. Here we have a cantaloupe plant that has found itself a very nice spot and is going gang busters. It has set two fruits so far but there are dozens and dozens of flowers and we should have more cantaloupe than we can use in a month.
Here is a shot of the entire plant. It just keeps growing. The reason this is amazing is that before we started our current practices, it would have taken a pick axe to dig through the hard clay soil in this pasture. Now this cantaloupe is growing on a patch of black dirt with lots of organic material and with no assistance from us. Because its novel and because we like cantaloupe we will let it grow and mow it once it’s done. However, if the soil will grow a high value tender plant, it will surely grow some nice grass. This is just a sign that what we are doing is working.
We get a lot of questions on what we feed our animals.
Corn? No, except sweet corn husks from the farmers market.
Grain? Eh, well, actually yes. But not what you think.
In the video above you can see our cows, having just been turned out onto a new paddock, eating the seed heads from fescue grass. They will eat about 80% of the seed heads, mixed in with the grass they normally eat. These grains are only available for a few weeks in the spring and the cows make full use of the opportunity scarfing all they can while they can. Does this mean our cows are grain fed? I can hear you saying now, “I thought cows weren’t supposed to eat grain. It’s bad for the stomachs or something.” Cows eat whatever they can get naturally. If there is grain available, they will get into it and it will put on fat, just like they do in the feed lots. The difference on our farm is that the cows only get grain when it’s in season (spring) and it’s only a small part of their diet, just like if they were roaming wild.
The plus side for us is we can finish grass-fed cows in June, process in July, and have some marbling in our meat and fat on the hide. Despite what the dietitians would have us believe, fat is what it’s all about. That’s how steaks are graded, based on the marbling of fat.
So don’t worry, our cows are still grass-fed and grass finished, and even the grain they get is grass.
Grazing update from 6-8-2014. The paddocks are about 35 yards wide, and half the length of the main pasture. They are split in length on the bottom of the field where all the repair work was done last year for erosion. While the cows eat a lot of the seed heads, they leave quite a bit standing as you can see in the picture. The dog fennel is rearing its head, and the thistle is coming up thick but only in areas where there is an issue. I hate thistle, but it’s a pioneering plant that is good for recovery of soil. Having it be so selective where it comes up is satisfying because it was starting to pop up everywhere. As we’ve recovered soil health, it’s starting to choke out in the good stands of grass and only appear where things need more help. I love it when what we are doing works.
One thing both Spork and I noted was that the cows are leaving quite a bit of grass behind. They aren’t reaching under the hot wire at all, nor are they eating down the grass past a first bite or two. The clover is being decimated as usual but the grass is only getting decent pressure. As we head into summer, that’s where I want the grass to be. Tall and not under pressure, even though the fescue will go dormant and our warm season grasses will take over, the fescue will help shield the ground from the heat of summer. We will clip this pasture as we’ve done the others, leaving about 8″ of height and plenty of litter on the ground to help rebuild the soil. One big reason the grass is not getting so much pressure is that huge amount of veggies and fruits we are bringing onto the farm each day. We literally bring thousands of pounds of produce on the farm, most of which goes to the cows. The cows are getting a lot of what they want from these loads of produce, and are filling in the corners with a days grazing. The end result if happy, fat cows with no grain (except seed heads).
One issue I’m noting is that the flies are especially bad this year. There is a swarm around the cows and I don’t want to use chemicals to ward them off. We ordered another batch of meat chickens last week. I’m hoping to get the chicken tractors back in production behind the cows so they can start eating the fly larvae. That is supposed to put a dent in the fly population. It’s about time these chickens started earning their keep around here.
The cows have pretty much decimated the paddock yesterday. The ate 85% of the grass in the paddock, and two pallets of fresh vegetables from the market. Despite that much chowing, they ran into this mornings paddock and are busily munching away at the new grass. It really is amazing how much food they can put away.
The fescue has headed out again this year. Not as tall as last year which I take as a good sign. The seed heads last year were waist-high. This year they are knee-high. I hope that means the grass isn’t finding the need to stretch so far to reproduce. Whatever the reason the cows are clipping off the grain heads and getting their annual boost of grains. They are also getting some more of the stalks which is helping with the scours. Their stools have firmed up mostly except for the occasional loose stool.
We are well and truly in grass now, with basically unlimited grass for the cows. The only reason we keep the paddocks small at this point is to make sure each area gets the attention it needs. It may make sense to make the paddocks a bit bigger than we are now, just to give the grass a chance to be a little taller post grazing.
Overall the cows look good. We are having trouble with our young bulls fighting each other and we have decided to end the non-castration experiment and to cut the bulls the week after next. The vet is coming to help since we haven’t castrated this late before.
With Penelope having new babies, we had to move the feeder pigs we purchased into the barn. They are too small to be with the two grown boys, and too big to be around Penelope’s babies. We try to have our pigs in similar sized groups but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. Catching these little pigs was a bit of an adventure. John, Miguel, and I made a few laps of the pig pen chasing them around and there were a few dives into the dirt catching squirming pigs. It all worked out and Miguel was surprised to see me “wheelbarrowing” one of the pigs after we caught him. He decided to give it a try himself. We only did this a few feet, then because of their small size just picked the pigs up and carried them to the barn.
Today the cows were moved into the bottom of the draw in the main pasture. The grass is growing very well and the cows now have more than they can eat in each paddock. They are getting more protein than they need and their stools are loose. I don’t have any hay to supplement them with so we’re just going to have to work our way through this period until the grass gets a little taller and has more fiber to it. The warm season grasses haven’t started coming back yet but the fescue and clover are going gangbusters.
This is the end result of years of work. I’ve wanted one of these gators for a long time and I’ve been working actively on getting one for about a year. I finally have pulled off the deal and on Friday I brought home this monster gator. We set paddocks today for the cattle and the two girls came out to help, as long as they could drive the gator and not actually do any of the work. Kids!
The good news is if you’re coming for a tour, we have more options for you if you cannot walk. Sometimes people like to bring grandma or grandpa or more often they have small kids. If you need to ride rather than walk, just let me know when you contact me about taking a tour.
Late March we started the cows on paddock shift again at the top of our largest pasture. We’ve been working them steadily towards the other end and today we’ve arrived. When we first started there was just a bit of green, no real grass. We also made our paddocks small, maybe 18 yards wide by the full length of the pasture long. As we arrive at the end, with three weeks more growth on the grass, we are at 39 yard wide paddocks and the cows are still over grazing. About 90% of the grass is grazed and they are still reaching under the wire for more. A good portion of the grass has been second grazed. We have the four pond paddocks coming up, and then the front pasture which Sam and Dottie are sequestered in currently while Dottie dries off, I hope. That means we will be back to the winter paddock in about a week. It’s slowly coming back after all the traffic this winter. Hopefully it will have recovered by the time we get there because I need the cows to stay a while so our first paddock in this pasture will have time to recover. Soon we will be in the spring flush, with more grass than we know what to do with but it seems a long time coming.
Sunday after church the kids and I fed the cows their daily ration of veggies. As always the cows and the kids both had fun. I don’t always have the kids to help and I certainly don’t get all of them that often. I was happy to have them all yesterday.
As you can see we are getting down to the road. In a few more days we’ll be down to the first pond and beginning to work our way back towards the house.
The grass is growing nicely. The sun and warmth is really having a great effect. However there still isn’t enough grass to keep the cows from eating more than I’d like.
Here you see that there are some areas that the cows haven’t eaten so it’s not like every bit of grass is gone or even eaten but much of the area has been grazed over not once but at least twice. The grass is recovering nicely after the cows rotate off of it but I’m looking forward to having enough grass that we are trampling the extra grass vs. eating 90% of what is there.
Here is one of our cows, Laser, grazing fresh grass yesterday. I was actually sitting on the mineral feeding, enjoying the morning and typing up yesterday’s blog post when she grazed right up next to me. I spent a few minutes watching her graze and talking to her (she doesn’t talk back, I’m not that crazy yet). I completely forgot I was holding a phone/camera and finally filmed just the last few seconds of her grazing closely. She was about 1 foot from me and munching merrily. It’s amazing what being quiet and calm around the cows does for their disposition.
Notice how when she eats she clips the top 1/3 to 1/2 of the grass stalks. This isn’t by accident or all that she can reach. With enough grass to eat in the paddock, this is all that the cows will eat, just the tops. This leaves the bottom 2/3 to 1/2 of the grass to regrow meaning that the grass bounces back like nothing happened and will be much taller and lusher the next time the cows come by. Also, the root system of the grass sheds some of its root system with this grazing which does all kinds of great things for the soil, but that’s another post. The grass and the roots regrow starting the next day as the cows move off of this paddock and onto the next one. This is what moving the cows every day is all about. If I left the cows on this paddock they would eat the grass right to the ground which is what happens with conventional grazing.
This is our second year of intensive grazing so it’s going to be interesting to see how the grass responds to spring coming into it with a much healthier root system and soil conditions. We built quite a bit of organic matter last year, and we’ve fed lots of hay and vegetables all winter which have added even more organic matter to the soil. We have another few weeks to let the fescue jump up and get mature, then we’ll be back to grazing and trampling for the rest of the season trying to build organic matter with the cows.
Finally we have a grass and grazing update. Here you see yesterday on the left, today on the right prior to moving the cows. As I write this the cows are quietly munching away on fresh spring grass. I had to get them out of bed to make their move but once they saw me they were ready for a new paddock.
The grass is pretty clumpy and at its tallest is about 8″ high. When we started the cows in grass paddocks a few weeks ago, the grass was barely growing so we’ve made good progress. Everything I’ve heard says that I needed to keep the cows off of grass till the grass was fully grown out, probably about where it is now or at least a few days from now. Unfortunately I ran out of hay with our terrible winter so the cows had to get what was out there. I started the cows on the paddocks that were untouched from last fall with plenty of dry matter and a very healthy stand of grass. Looking back at where the cows have been, the grass is recovering nicely. It will be interesting to see how the later grazed paddocks compare to the early grazed paddocks.
One thing I worried about with the cows getting on spring grass was loose stools. This is bad for the cows and comes from the change in diet from winter hay to high protein fresh grass. What we did is with the last of the hay we moved the cows to a new paddock with a bale of hay. The cows ignored the bale and mowed the grass the first day. However we left them for two days and on the second day the hot the bale. By having them switch back and forth we managed to have the cows keep their rumen in line and convert over without any problems. It took about a week and worked well.
This blog continues to evolve and show more and more of our farm life. However it all started so that we could do what you see recommended in this picture.
Its April and winter has finally released its icy grasp. The grass is showing signs of life and we are back to moving our cows onto new grass each day. Calves are beginning to hit the ground and the flavor of this blog will be reflecting our core purpose going forward, documenting our intensive grazing practices and grass conditions. Of course the hog class pics will still be in there and we will be showing pics of the truck restoration as well but expect more grass pics and cow pics for the next 9 months.