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Winter Feeding

January 19, 2014

As usual when I post about something that can be done many ways, remember this is what we do.  It changes from year to year and is an accumulation of what we’ve known for many years, what we’ve learned and what we are locked into due to management decisions made in the last year, good and bad.  Mileage may vary.

feeding the hay out

feeding the hay out

Every winter of my life until the last 10 or so we have fed our cattle outside on pasture.

bedding the feeding shed

bedding the feeding shed

Then we built this feeding shed onto the hay barn, fairly cheaply with fir poles cut from our property, a couple of scavenged power poles along with purchased metal roofing, feeder panels and dimensional lumber for sheathing.  Friends helped (thanks Craig and Brad!) on the pole cutting day, and all in all the shed has been a pretty good way to capture nutrients in the winter months.  This winter feeding concept (deep bedding with moveable headgate) was something I had seen back at Polyface before the turn of the century.  I just love writing that.  Turn of the century.

But like all methods there are pros and cons with each.  Feeding outside is faster, the cows like it better (I think), it doesn’t require me to scare up any carbon for bedding, and as long as it doesn’t snow, I am feeding less hay because they are getting some pickings out there while in the pasture, and a lot of the manure is getting placed in the pasture where it is needed.  But there is some impact from grazing, it’s our rainy season and the cows are out in the weather, which means I have to be too.

Having the cows in means I don’t have to haul any hay back out, I can just place it in the feeder for the cows since we built the feeder gate right next to the hay stack.  Water delivery is simple, one hose is required, no hauling water.  But, I do lose some manure, since the shed isn’t big enough to confine the cows inside for a two months solid.  We have a sacrifice area outside, which is handy for when we need to bed the cows (daily) and add hay.  That means if the cows prefer to stand outside, I lose that manure, and the area turns into a muddy manurey mess, where is it nigh impossible to reclaim in my setting.  This is where reality meets the plan on paper.  You aren’t going to capture every drop of manure and urine on your farm.  You need to just get over it and do the best you can, there will be some slippage.

How I choose where to feed isn’t quite so wishy-washy.  I grew up with the mantra – “keep the cows out of the hay fields,  except right after haying…let them eat down the edges.”  I’ve since unlearned that little bit of knowledge.  It’s not okay to let the cows in the hayfield right after cutting, and it is okay to let them graze and impact the hayfield during the dormant season.  These next two photos illustrate why.

hayfield – cut in July 2013

This photo above shows the regrowth in December before our cold snap.  Pretty wan I would say.  Hay is pretty depleting compared to grazing.  Material is being removed both ways, machine and cow.  But the cow replaces some of what she takes when she takes it.  She inoculates the grass with more microbes, and leaves her manure and urine behind.  Also the cow if you’re timing your grazing right, tramples the grass she doesn’t eat, adding plant litter to feed the grass.  At the top of the photo through that fence line is the pasture adjacent to the hayfield.  The hayfield was grazed lightly early spring, and then the hay crop was harvested.

grazed ground 2013

grazed ground 2013

This is that pasture just on the other side of the fence, it was grazed lightly in the spring on the same rotation as the hayfield and then grazed in July about the same time the hay was being harvested. If you look back through the blog to last July you’ll probably find a photo with the equipment in the hayfield and the cows grazing in this field.  It’s pretty easy to see the difference in the regrowth in the same time frame.  The grazed field is so much thicker and healthier looking, and this is the same farm area, roughly being one hundred feet from the fence line at the hayfield.  The only difference is our impact and management of the ground.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.  We can’t generate enough compost (that is a huge project labor and equipment-wise) to fertilize all the hay ground, and we have to find the balance between grazing and haymaking.  I’ve said before I don’t think I could get by without winter feeding here due to our high rainfall leaching the nutrients out of the stockpiled grass.  Or it could be I just can’t give up making hay.  Either way, this is where we are now.  Grazing more of the year and feeding less of the year.  It works.  As it is now we fertilize one hayfield with farm generated compost from our deep bedding and we winter feed hay in the other field to get some animal impact and fertilization.

We don’t really have pugging issues on our farm, even so I like to minimize the impact in high traffic areas like water troughs and gates where we enter the fields by mindfully placing them to do the least harm.  There is some impact for sure, you just need to weigh the pros and cons of each issue.

Same field after 16 days, I’ve moved the cattle and trough to a new paddock and this is how the trough area looks.  As a general rule, I don’t like to make new ruined areas.  In this particular field the water trough always gets placed here.  This particular spot is actually the grassed over apron of the driveway so it is not really high yield anyway.  I can fill the trough from the driveway lessening the impact of the vehicle on the pasture and the cows have access on the pasture side.

I also limit access to the camp trees to once or twice a year, along with roads.  No point in over-fertilizing the hedgerow or having hooves cut up the road.  When the cows were in this paddock in December, I put up a quick temporary fence to block them from this field driveway.  It’s held up pretty good in all the freezing and thawing.

On the opposite side of the impact spectrum is using the cows to beat back the brush.  In this paddock I allowed the cows to work over this area we are trying to reclaim (or at least hold back) from Scotch broom.

barb wire makes a good neck scratcher

barb wire makes a good neck scratcher

This was good for a few days, but at some point the itching on the permanent fence and lounging in one spot was putting a strain on the fence, and my nerves from all the cars honking at the cows hanging their heads over the fence to scratch. The best remedy is a quick fence to fence them back from the fence.  Strip manuring if you will.  I want the fertilizer placed where it can do the most good.  In the field.

One of the concepts of land management that has made the most impact on how we graze our fields is keyline management.  Now I know it drives purists crazy when people mention keyline without any water catchment or manipulation, but I see it as an empowering and unique way to view my property.  The way I see it is I have soil keylines, shade keylines and the physical keylines we all have read about – where slope and swale meet.  I’m just using a different template for soil and shade.

Using the keyline concept in the pasture is simple in the summer, I just build a fence on the ridge top which places the fence between the north and south-facing slopes and build paddocks on either side, shape and size determined by grass growth.  North – cool.  South – warm.  I can use that same logic for my winter feeding regime too.  I want the cows spread out during the winter to lessen their impact on the sod, so small paddocks are not good this time of year.  I know the cows will choose the south-facing slope for lounging and night sleeping, thus manuring the south slope without me making them go there.  I also know that the north slope will stay fairly manure-free if I don’t manipulate the cows by feeding them there.  It’s really the same as summer, I’m just using hay instead of grass to do it.

This paddock while flat, shows what I mean by a shade keyline, and it works the same as the north/south divided slope.  The cows naturally want to feel the sun on their hides during winter.  Don’t we all?  So in this paddock we have been feeding in the shade to get them to spend some time there.  I don’t have to worry about the sunny side of the paddock, the cows naturally gravitate towards that after they have eaten some hay.  The shade can be a double-edged sword too, during our cold snap in December, I moved the cows to a sunny part of the pasture,  it was just too cold.  Lately though we’ve been having nights in the mid-20’s (F) and it warms to about 50°F during the sunny day, so they can take a little shade.

In conclusion, winter feeding can be as simple as you want or as complicated as you want to make it.  There are lots of choices,  and a lot depends on your labor and equipment constraints.

If you have a farm that needs a jump in fertility, a winter feeding deep bedding system works great.  Of course, that means bringing in enough carbon to keep the nutrients in the manure and urine tied down in stable form.  It’s pretty amazing how much the bedding builds up in a short time, yielding tangible results.  This system works best if you have the equipment to clean out the deep bedding and the right design for easy clean out with equipnment- otherwise, cleaning out a deep bedding pack by hand is a quick way to burn out.  Match the method with the capabilities.

However, feeding outside on clean ground works good too – maybe a starting point on a new farm and a good way to get some practice in observing livestock habits so you get the most bang for your manure buck.

I like both.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. A.A. permalink
    January 20, 2014 12:53 am

    Nice post, thanks!

  2. January 20, 2014 7:28 am

    I really like reading about how you do things. The farmers around us work on another ‘scale’ altogether. It’s nice to collect ideas and experiences from small farmers from all ilk.

    When you feed on the ground, do you move the area you’re putting the hay on to different places with each feeding? Unlike you, we have a few feet of snow up here in Canada and our cattle hate walking on it. When it gets icy from our constant freeze/thaw cycles, it’s impossible to let them in the field. They gate is open, but they won’t even go.

    Our approach before the snow was moving the bales about. We are still in a spot where we’re having to pay neighbours to custom cut for us. It’s something we’re hoping to get away from as soon as possible. It’s not ideal to have half our hay in round bales and to have to have a mad panic when the squares come in so we can get it all off the wagons in an hour to get the wagon back out (last year the temperature in the barn was +48 celsius and we went like maniacs all day). I don’t think making hay should have to be so heinous.

    Would you be willing to do a Hay 101 post? The scale you’re operating on is similar to ours. While we have friends who have given us pointers and ideas, it’s always good to pull in as many resources as possible. It would be wonderful to hear how hay can be cut and put in square bales on a small scale without mortgaging the house to buy the equipment.

    p.s. Your new pup is adorable.

    • January 20, 2014 9:59 am

      Tara, yes we feed in a different spot each day avoiding manure spots. One thing I didn’t say in the last comment about the hay field was that there is a repugnance zone during the grazing season where cows won’t eat within a certain distance of a cow pie. Their parasite protection if you will, they also don’t like the grass that looks the best to us humans, where there has been too much cow manure and the growth is dark and lush. I have these spots at gates, water trough areas, barn yard etc. Yet when you cut hay from those spots, they readily eat it in hay form. That is different if the manure fertilizer is not cow, where we ran hens or broilers in an intensive way, the grass growth looked the same, lush and dark, and the cows loved it.

      I think a post on haymaking would be right up there with unschooling, vaccinations, raw dog food, and gluten free diet stuff. I don’t know if I am brave enough :p Our old tractor (1971)came with the farm (we had to rebuild the engine), the rake came with the tractor, we bought a used haybine or two, and we bought the baler brand new 19 years ago, it’s still like new. Not cheap but the baler should outlast us, since we aren’t doing anymore custom work, and we put money in the baler because it can cause the most consternation.

      Electric fence training today – poor puppy 😦

  3. Chris permalink
    January 20, 2014 8:18 am

    Ok, this post made my head spin…like I said…you are a walking encyclopedia and really should get paid…ALOT…for all this knowledge you so freely dispense! WSU would snap you up in a second, as would probably every Ag. U. in the world! 🙂
    This is totally off topic but does HD read your blog and do the two of you ever get to get away from the farm, to just, you know…relax together? 🙂

    • January 20, 2014 9:48 am

      Chris, no he doesn’t read it, he has to live it 🙂 Us relax? We don’t like getting away – this place is a refuge really for us and are both afflicted with stickinthemuditis. We like to stay home.

  4. Steve permalink
    January 20, 2014 8:42 am

    After reading Keylining articles I’m reminded of land-leveling with my father. I like you ideas of keylining for feeding. Thanks. It gives me ideas for what to do.

  5. January 20, 2014 9:43 am

    You do a great job of showing how cattle can be used as well as illustrating the trade-offs involved in some decisions we face. Cattle are not simply a function of feed and time. You bring the style.

    • January 20, 2014 10:02 am

      HFS, tradeoffs for sure – this weather has been a boon. The cows love being outside. But I think we will pay for this dry weather this summer in the form of less grass. It’s always something!

      Style Ha! You’re too funny!

  6. January 20, 2014 6:02 pm

    Wonderful post! We’ve gone to feeding outside, too. Last year we fed in the barn and it worked, but we ended up spending more time and money spreading straw to lock in the nutrients and then spreading the fertilizer out on pasture. This winter we just left the cows out so they can fertilize for us.

    • January 20, 2014 6:11 pm

      I like both for different reasons, we still need some composty stuff for one hayfield plus I need to give that hayfield a rest here pretty soon, if the grass starts to grow the cows have to come off. Just depends on the temps. Always watching the weather.

  7. Chris permalink
    January 20, 2014 6:05 pm

    🙂 us too but do love visiting the ocean every now and then! So powerful! And just to put us in our place in the natural world!

  8. Ben permalink
    January 21, 2014 1:33 pm


  9. January 22, 2014 7:46 am

    Although we don’t have plans to have cattle on our farm, I find these posts so interesting and really appreciate the way you share information. Chris is right – WSU would be lucky to have you!

  10. Ben Hewitt permalink
    January 22, 2014 8:45 am

    Great post, Matron. We always feed out on our most-depleted areas until we get heavy snow, which impacts fencing and makes it harder to transport hay to the animals. We have an outdoor “sacrifice” feeing area that builds dense pack for the snowy months. We’ve taken to scattering rock dust into the pack for some extra minerals (not for the cows, but for the eventual compost).

    Boy, are you ever right about handling dense pack with machine vs manure fork. We have ours set up for the tractor, but for many years did it by hand. Even with only six cows, it was a phenomenal amount of work.

    • January 22, 2014 10:21 am

      Whatever works for sure – I’m only good enough (strong enough) to clean up behind the milk cow daily the deep bedding for the hens, the rest is either in the field or cleaned out from end to end with equipment…deep doo doo for sure. See here:

      We add the rock dust about every foot or so of bedding in the barn, and I make sure the cows get their loose minerals every day, so between the two I think we’re making a difference and replacing some of what we take. A vet who I respect just recently wrote a quick internet note on a forum the other day, and his take on minerals for cows, is that that kelp is the most bioavailable to the animal and the rest of the minerals end up going through the cow and onto the ground or in the case of deep bedding into the resulting compost.

      • Ben Hewitt permalink
        January 22, 2014 12:23 pm

        Yes, our experience has been that our cows (and other stock) do best when given free choice kelp and occasional offerings of loose salt separate from the kelp. We used to do all sorts of fancy mixes as recommended by Pat Colby, but have really moved away from that. It’s always hard to know if we’ve got it exactly right, but they sure look good on just the kelp.

        • January 22, 2014 12:33 pm

          I like Pat’s theories, but the mix didn’t go over well here with the cows, and if they don’t eat it, it ain’t gonna work. Same with the fancy covered mineral feeder, if the timid and young don’t use it, it doesn’t matter if it stays dry or not. A box made out of 2 x 6 scraps works just fine.

  11. January 23, 2014 3:56 pm

    Reblogged this on Girl Gone Farming and commented:
    An excellent post on winter feeding methods. We do a bit of both here at Wyebrook. The cows and steers are all fed out on pasture; the calves have access to outdoor feeders and the feed barn. The barn also provides some shelter for the growing calves.

  12. January 24, 2014 9:39 pm

    Where do you live?

  13. January 29, 2014 3:56 am

    Hi, I love your blog! I think this is my first comment though.

    I read this post and the one about the hay shed. When readingv them, I was thinking of how different our climates are: in TX/LA we (we being my family) leave cattle in the fields all year round, and their manure is not wasted there, nor do they destroy the fields. We don’t get as much rain as you do.

    Then a few days ago I watched a documentary that made me think of you. It is called “Farms of the Future” and it’s a BBC doc. What made me think of you was a pasture management method covered in the doc. One farmer planted many, many different varieties of grass in his field, and they grow together to protect the soil. The grasses combined make a thick mat that the cattle and sheep can’t break through. It was fascinating. They also used leaves from the forest as fodder for the cattle; they would prune off a branch, lay it in the field, and the cattle loved it.

    You might find the doc interesting, I certainly did.

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