As I sit here writing this on October 31, 2019, a wet snowstorm is blasting from the northwest even while the leaves on the maple in the front yard are still golden. I did manage to coax the herd out to graze another strip of the cover crops of oats, turnips and peas. We fed them some mediocre hay last night when the winds drove them home for shelter, but today they were eager to follow me out for a fresh break, shaking their heads and pushing upwind to get to the juicy and succulent treat. I myself was not too excited about trudging out against the wind to pull the one wire out of the way and reinstall it beyond the current break to get the next strip ready, but I found that once I got exerting I was warm enough, since it’s not that much below freezing. Just not what we usually expect in October!
I did get a literal taste of why the cows are willing to brave the wind to graze, instead of staying home to eat slightly musty fescue hay. I nibbled on some of the blooming pea shoots, as we often do when working out there, and they were sweeter that ever. “They’re trying not to freeze,” my crop man son explained. “Sugar is antifreeze.”
It has, indeed, been a really weird year on the farm, with more than the usual challenges and setbacks.
It started out normally enough, with a dry enough early spring that we were able to sow our oats April 9, and turn the cows out to pasture April 21. Actually the first paddocks we grazed were in our slough ground which is often too wet.
And then the rains began, stalling our spring planting of organic crops and preventing our early haymaking that would normally set up our pastures for ideal rotational grazing. The cows had plenty to eat but it wasn’t the high quality that goes with good milk production, and there was no way to prevent their trampling the softened sod. We also had unusual winter kill, especially of orchardgrass and legumes, so some of the perennial stands came up half ragweed, which cows will munch on a bit when it’s tender but later in the season they won’t touch. The grasses that survived were mostly fescue and Reeds canarygrass (both improved varieties, but still not as palatable as orchardgrass). And when those grasses got too mature since we weren’t able to cut them for hay, the cows really refused them. So it was just not very satisfying conditions for feeding cows.
Bearing with the incessant mud made cow chores a major lesson in patience. Our farm is in low, heavy ground, and there was literally nowhere the cows could go that they weren’t walking through water, sometimes a lot of it. Day after day we just trudged along, trusting that better times would come.
I was daily aware that in other areas, many people were dealing with flooding catastrophes bringing loss of life and fortune. This knowledge didn’t exactly make me feel better, but it kept our burdens in perspective.
It was disorienting to be still planting in July, even in August as we finished putting in cover crops where we couldn’t plant the usual corn and soybeans. There was ample subsoil moisture when it turned totally dry in July, but even the shallow tillage needed to kill weeds led to mediocre cover crop germination. What did germinate grew well when it accessed the deeper moisture reserves. We got a good stand from planting peas a good four inches deep to get the seed in moisture! (Peas are usually planted about 1.5 to 2 inches deep.) The previously waterlogged soil baked and caked, all the pasture plants stressed to the max. My eight-year-old grandson quipped, sounding just like a seasoned old farmer who has seen extremes balanced out over time, “I thought maybe after all that rain we got earlier, it would get dry.”
Into the fall
By mid-September when it was time to let the perennial stands rest till spring or at least until dormancy in November or December, the cows were able to feast on sudangrass taller than we are, which they relish since it’s so sweet and juicy. Fencing it is more work, since we have to move them every day instead of every several days as we do for the perennial stands, and it’s so tall we have to make sure to tramp or drive down a path for the wire so the cows see it.
Even though it was mostly impossible to make good dry hay this year, we made rows and rows of baleage, so our feed supply is ample and reasonably good quality. We started with triticale and some wheat, followed by oats with new seeding. We also baled up sorghum/sudangrass, which needed to dry longer than we were able to give it because of rain (we baled it at 70% moisture, but 50-60% is ideal) but hopefully worked out ok. We will find out when we open those bales up this winter.
Now we have plenty of cover crops to graze if the weather holds. With the rain and mud we’ve had the last month or so, it’s been hard to make the best use of them, as each break gets mudded up before the cows have actually utilized it. But from a soil-building viewpoint, we don’t mind a fair amount of “wasted” material left behind.
After we’re done with the cover crops, later in November and into December, we will turn the cows in a strong stand of fescue. We find that the clumps of mature fescue that they hate during the summer they are glad to chow down once the frost has made them sweeter. We learned our lesson last year not to graze it too early in the fall, though, as the most damaged paddock was one we grazed in October so it didn’t have time to rebuild before winter.
We know many of you have been dealing with similar challenges. There’s always something new to adapt to and figure out, so we just have to roll with it and keep reworking our plans. Let’s hope next year won’t be quite as wet, though there will be likely some other unexpected challenges to work around.
Whatever happens, we’re thankful for the opportunity to be involved with cows and grass and the production of wholesome food.