Grass Feeding Cows in the Winter
Grass-feeding cows is simple, right? The farmer puts the cows out in the fresh grass and just lets them eat it. And the the next day the herd is moved to new grass. Nothing to it.
Yes... But what about during the winter? How do you grass feed cows in the winter?
This is a great question! Because obviously, when the grass is dormant or when there is snow on the ground... the cows may go out for a romp but there is obviously no grass to eat.
So how DO you grass-feed cows in the winter?
Quite simply, we harvest grasses during the summer and store up for the winter. We take wisdom from the ants. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.” Proverbs 6:6-8
Much of our summer work revolves around preparing for winter. Here, Winfred, our 2nd son, makes a grass harvesting decision. We try to harvest our organic grasses roughly once a month because that’s the peak nutrition for grasses... but the weather has to be right too! We must have sunshine. Yup... “Make hay when the sun shines!”
We embrace bio-diversity. All of our fields are managed 100% organically and we never apply herbicides of any kind... So amid the orchard grass, blue grass, rye grass and more we also have wild daisies. We love it that way! Every plant has its purpose.
This dandelion is a case in point. Chemical farmers consider dandelions a weed and apply chemicals to kill it, but as organic farmers, we respect dandelions. Dandelions are very nutritious and our cows love them. If a cow was grazing here... she’d eat the dandelion first. They seem to like them best!
And just look at the soil the grasses are growing from! Notice all those cottage-cheese looking mud formations. They are earthworm castings. Earthworms are one of the best signs of healthy bio-diversity of our soils.
Red Winged Blackbirds and other species speak to our bio-diversity too.
Well!... Apparently there’s no rain in the forecast for at least the next 12 hours because, while I was showing you bio-diversity, Winfred has returned with the tractor and mower.
Winfred loves to mow hay. Well, all of us do I guess. It is fun work and the fresh cut hay drying in the sun has such a nostalgic smell of summer!
The ground speed of the mower tractor is about 12 mph which might seem slow... but when pulling a 13 ft mower through 2-3 ft tall grasses... it seems to be flying. The grass shoots 10 ft out the back. It’s fun to do and watch.
It’s a good thing that we can drive fast, because this field of organic grass is about 90 acres. It’s 9:00 AM and Winfred is mowing close to 15 acres an hour so the job will take him till 3:00 PM... and that is just the mowing!
He’s finished mowing! Notice how the grasses are spread as wide as possible. The more sunshine each grass stem is exposed too, the quicker it dehydrates which is what we need in order to store it properly for the cows' winter feed.
At about noon, Austin starts tedding (fluffing) the hay. (Austin is Joel Hege’s oldest son, for those of you who know Joel as your route driver.) Austin starts tedding where Winfred had started mowing. That way he is always working with grass that has had a few hours to dry before he fluffs it up to dry even more.
The tedder’s job is to spread out the hay even more and especially to turn up still wet grass that was not exposed to the sun. The faster we get it dry… the more nutrition we seal in. Notice the pond in the foreground. You know what would be in that pond if we were chemical farmers!?
Around 2:00 PM, Roland, our 4th son, shows up with the rake. If you have been following the times, you realize that at this point all three men are working in different parts of the same field. Winfred is finishing the mowing, Austin is following about 3 hours behind him with the tedder, and now Roland is following Austin with the rake.
The rake’s job is to gather the now sufficiently dehydrated grass into rows so that the baler can pick up the grass and bale it. It is kind of like a field sweeper. It smoothly sweeps 26 ft of grass all to the left hand side.
It’s now about 4:00 in the afternoon. Winfred has started baling and Roland is raking ahead of him.
Winfred stops his baler a bit to be sure the condition of the hay is just right. This grass needs to keep till next winter. We can't afford to mess it up now!
The next three pictures show a bit how the baler works. Here you can see it’s unloading a bale that is finished and wrapped in white plastic to lock in its straight-from-the-summer-field freshness.
About 5 seconds later the baler has moved a second bale that is ready to be wrapped into the wrapping chamber. The bale wrap works like giant white Saran Wrap.
As Winfred continues down the row gathering up grass for a 3rd bale... the wrapper in the back of the baler wraps the second bale to be ready to discharge as soon as Winfred stops when the bale chamber is full again. When baling is good, he can discharge one finished bale per minute.
Giant Marshmallows: By 6:00 the field is about half finished. The bales look like giant marshmallows. And giant they are! Each one weighs close to a ton! This 90 acre field will produce about 180 bales this cutting. This sounds like a lot but it will only last our herd of grass fed cows, dry cows, beef and young stock for about 22 days of winter. They eat about 8 bales of grass per day! See why we're busy in the summer!
Brothers... outstanding in their field. ;) Rodrick, our oldest, who is usually stuck in the office, stops down to check on the progress of the day. Winfred hopes to finish up at about 8:00 or 9:00 PM... 12 hours after the first grass was cut this morning. We call this speedy process 'hay-in-a-day.' It's the best way we have found to seal in the summer's lush grass nutrition for the cows to enjoy in the winter.
The next day is bale hauling day. All the bales need hauled promptly off the field so the new grasses can start growing again. We load the bales onto a flat-bed semi-truck to haul them to the home farm to be stored for winter.
Jefferson, our 5th son, enjoys doing this job. But sometimes Austin or Anthony, Marlin Charles’ oldest son, will also get the job. Running the 'bale hugger' which is strong enough to lift over a ton of hay in one grab is admittedly a rather macho experience for a young man!
Okay... So it’s winter now! Let’s check on some of last summer's Organic Grass! Winfred slits the wrap with his Leatherman and lifts off the top...
Sure enough... the grass does still smell like summer! Just a hint of caramelization from a slight lacto-fermentation process, too, but very fresh and sweet and tantalizing to the cows. Just look at them stretching their necks! :)
Each of the cows can hardly wait to get their share of the all-you-can-eat, 100% certified organic buffet! And it’s even free! (For them, that is... Not for us. There is truly no free lunch. ;)
Yummm... Summer Grass all Winter Long!... We’re so lucky our farmers figured this out!