Improving Pasture Over the Winter Months

Last week, after I introduced myself to a neighbor that I had not yet met, he informed me that he and his wife loved passing by my farm.  Why I asked?  Because they never knew what they’d see!  I suppose there is always something different out front.  

Currently, there is a litter of pigs in the front field - mama pig kept jumping out of her space out in the woods and it was the only place I could really contain her.  There is also the chicken wagon.  My daughter Carmin and I can be seen struggling to unroll very large rolls of hay (often with an obnoxious cow pushing from the other side… ).  The three sheep are also in the front field, and we can’t forget all of the ducks, geese and dogs.

Between what my neighbors undoubtedly believe are some strange farming practices and the home renovation that is still not 100% complete, I guess there is always something interesting going on.  I had the impression that I was the topic of many a conversation (gossip?) and that I was perhaps providing a lot of entertainment value.

Meanwhile, I’m forever trying to convince my neighbors that I don’t need (or want) to fertilize my fields, nor do I want to cut hay from my fields (one neighbor offers to cut my grass for hay every time we speak)!  They also tell me I need to use a hay feeder - to minimize "waste."

You might wonder, why would I refuse to allow hay to be cut from my fields?  It’s simple really - cutting hay is the equivalent of mining the soil for minerals and nutrients.  Every time grass and other forages are cut and removed from a farm, the nutrients go with it.  All the organic material that should fall to the ground to feed the microbes which make the soil healthy, is removed!

For that simple reason, I will not cut hay from our pastures.  I bring in hay from other farms, bringing with it all of those nutrients and organic matter.  Hay is great fertilizer!  The cows cannot/will not eat all of the hay from a large round bale. 

The hay on the exterior is usually of lesser quality due to weather and sun exposure, it’s all "waste."  Then there is the hay that the cows have trampled on and dropped manure on.  One could view this as, again, wasted hay.  I don’t see it that way.  I see it as fertilizer, as a way to improve my pastures in the winter time.

Most of this winter I carefully placed the bales in areas that the pigs had already cleared.  My purpose was four-fold purpose.  First, the hay “mulched” the areas where the pigs had done some serious rooting, preventing erosion while nothing was growing in the cold.  Second, I dropped the bales on what was left of brambles and let the cows trample the brambles for me.  Third, hay and all the cow manure where the cows stood to eat are a great sources of organic matter which feeds all the microbes living in the soil.  Last, hay is a great source of free seed!  It's sprouting now, everywhere that I placed hay.

As I caught up to the pigs with hay, I began to place the hay bales ahead of the pigs.  This area was very brushy and the cows tended to leave largish piles of hay that was caught up in the saplings.  The pigs are now turning the leftover piles of hay compost as they look for good things to eat.  

The last thing I did with the hay was to start unrolling it.  This is a lot of work, particularly if you try to unroll it in the wrong direction….   or if you have an obnoxious cow pushing it from the other side!

Unrolling the hay is my favorite technique.  The unrolled bale creates a six inch thick layer of hay a few hundred feet long.  All of the cows can comfortably eat from the hay this way with little competition.  

The real reason I like the unrolling method is that in addition to "fertilizing," the hay also insulates and protects the grass and it’s roots from the elements, cow hooves, and overgrazing.  I’ve already noticed in the areas where I started unrolling it that the grass has new sprouts coming up from underneath and the grass that was already there is thriving. 

The proof is in the pudding - In previous years I had noticed that those areas where I fed hay  have fewer weeds and lots more legumes.  I’m kicking myself now for not unrolling every bale all winter!  I missed out on a ton of benefits.  Next year….

I continue to learn how to care for our farm in a sustainable way, and to help support our family farm and every other small farm, I ask you to share these blogs with your friends.  The goal is to get more people buying local pastured meats and farm vegetables from family farms, rather than supermarket products coming from industrial farms and food factories.  As with so many issues, the future of agriculture will be determined by how consumers choose to spend their money.

“The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.”  Thomas Edison