Last week over 900 people visited my website. I assume to see and read about what grazing escapades I’ve been up to. I can’t be sure what agendas visitors have because I get few comments. I don’t know if you’re a clicker, reader or a hardcore grazing fanatic. If you’re a regular participant and grazing practitioner, you’ve seen that up to now things have been pretty steady according to the grazing plan except for some quick one and done weather events, animal impact issues and changes in grass availability. After our pasture walk and hearing from my peers, I was feeling pretty satisfied that everyone saw the potential, the forward implementation plan, the happy cows and agreed I was doing pretty well. But now, I’ve got a little dose of reality and transparency for ya!
If you’ll remember, I left the farm and work for Harrisburg, PA last Tuesday and Wednesday to speak at the 1st Annual Growing Pennsylvania’s Organic Farms Conference amidst predictions of a winter snow storm. While my time hanging with Maryland’s Ron Holter, PCO’s Lee Rinehart and the farmer guests was great, I left early on Wednesday to get thru the Pennsylvania Mountains before the snow hit. Heavy rain on Tuesday turned to snow on Wednesday as I got home to a foot of wet snow and blinding wind. Suffice it to say, the grazing plan was/will be altered.
Snow, and more importantly the type of snow, is the bane of utilizing stockpiled grass especially when it’s mostly cool season orchardgrass, clovers and succulent forbs. Wet, drifted snow limits efficient use by cows because they have to really dig which means they need even more energy to harvest which means even more pasture. The kicker is, as soon as they step they compact the snow even more, which, you guessed it, means more energy to get it or it just becomes worm food. It’s frustrating to grow cow feed for 130 days and then have the worms eat it.
Since we are contract grazing the next generation of organic cows, I need to be sure they are well taken care of so I can’t force them into a “graze it or die scenario” like I had when I had dry momma beef cows. Add to the mix, 4 green-weaned weanling bulls and you can see why I am feeding some hay whereby conceding that the weather has bested my 100% grazing program. But I knew this would happen eventually so there is plenty of feed on hand. A good grazing plan has contingencies. In past years the snow didn’t come till later so this wasn’t needed and you just continue grazing (if you have the stockpile).
Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Dec. 12,13,14) was marked by a 34 degree drizzly rain which was great for snowman making in the day but crusted over during the night making it a pain for grazing. Nevertheless, I am still giving them a fresh paddock every day to minimize waste and am supplementing with a bale of hay. This scenario keeps them busy looking for the grass because of competition, concentrates some fertility and provides some good protein feed and the hay helps keep the rumen “mat” and satisfies my stress level with regards to animal welfare. It’s tough to find the right balance because this has an economic impact as well as an environmental one.
This morning (Monday 15th) I’m a little down because underneath the snow is unfrozen sod which means MUD. Mud around the big square bales because I don’t have any round bales to roll out, mud from hoof prints and mud from a tractor tires delivering the said hay. Part of me wants to put them in the sacrifice area with a hardened surface and say to heck with grazing right now. Part of me is questioning whether it would have been better to make the hay on this 30 acres versus grazing at this point, Part of me wants to open up all the paddocks and say have at it and discontinue hay feeding for as long as possible and spreading the herd out over 30 acres. The problem is I’ve got too damn much pride and there is “the goals” to contend with, including fertility transfer. On the plus side, the well-rested grass that gets “wasted” will be strong in the spring and feed a bunch of microbes.
I’m stressed because I’m not in complete control which is tough for me. You can see how decision-making needs to be flexible and why you need a few mentors or consultants to help you mull over these decisions and keep you from melting down. Looking ahead this week, I see trouble as the temperatures at night go below 20 which will freeze the melty snow and make it even more difficult for the animals to get to even though it might help with the hay hauling.
These postings give you a glimpse into my opportunities and challenges of extended grazing. There’s no free lunch, you’ve got to be monitoring all the time. Decisions need to be made about animal performance and comfort, environmental impacts, economic measures and family needs when you farm with Mother Nature. I guess that’s the life of a farmer and probably why only 1% of us are insane enough to carry on the independent traditions. See you next week and thanks for your participation.