The simple answer is we feed hay, which is dried grass. In the summer we have fields set aside that we let grow and don’t graze, and then go in and cut the grass with a large mower. If the stars align and we get three sunny and dry days after that we can then rake it into tight rows and then make bales out of it. Easy, right?
Well in this climate changing world we live in, three consecutive sunny and dry days in the summer is increasingly rare, and rarely happens when the forecast says it will. If hay that is drying on the ground gets wet it can rot and we lose the crop, which is rough because we need it to get through winter. The alternative is to rake and bale the grass when it is still moist, then wrap it in plastic so it is airtight. This is called making haylage, and is similar to using a silo, just much less expensive and labor intensive. Once wrapped the moist hay ferments a little which actually makes it tastier and more digestible for the cattle.
But that sounds resource and labor intensive, isn’t there another way?
There is, and we are working on it. It is called stockpiling, in which we simply let a field grow and don’t mow it, and then let the animals graze it in the winter. Cattle and sheep will actually dig through snow to get to tasty grass underneath provided there isn’t an icy crust, which again is an issue in our climate changey world. This last year we fenced in an additional 21 acres and next year we are fencing in the last 24, so we will have lots of opportunities to stockpile forage and use fewer fossil fuels in the winter, woo-hoo!
The problem? In order to stockpile forage(grass), your soil has to be good enough for things to grow in it.
Our farm has not had a lot of TLC in the last oh, say, 50 years. For the last five we have been using cover crops and green manure crops to try to bring them back to life, but have found that animals really are the key. Want something trampled and fertilized? Bring on the cattle. Want something turned over? Pigs are at your service. Want something weeded? Sheep to the rescue!
So that brings us back to hay and haylage.
There wasn’t much growing in the front fields we just fenced in, so we are feeding the cattle out there all winter and using the waste hay and manure they leave behind as fertilizer and compost to kickstart the circle of life. We place the bales somewhat systematically in different spots in the field to even out the distribution. This way we hope to be able to become more self-sufficient, grow our soil, sequester carbon, and provide GOOD FOOD!