When the Grass Isn’t Growing, What Do Grass Fed Cattle Eat?

We often emphasize the importance of “grass fed and grass finished” as a standard for feeding our beef cattle. Grass fed cattle are eating the kind of food that suits them best, and this is a very different diet compared to conventional grain fed cattle. And I believe that the grass fed beef from those cattle makes superior food for us as well.

But what about the winter? What’s left to eat during the cold months when all the summer’s grass lies flattened by ice and snow, when the ground is frozen rock solid? Let’s talk about baleage.

Transcript

Hi, I’m Dave, your farmer from Wrong Direction Farm.
Today I am out getting ready to feed the cattle. I’m about to break into a new row of baleage. This long tube you see behind me, it’s got bales of what we call baleage. It’s like hay except, instead of being totally dried down, we cut it in, this was cut in June, really at the peak of the grass season. We just let it wilt in the sun for like a half a day, and then we roll it up into tightly compacted bales. And we let it ferment inside these wrappers and it really preserves the quality of the grass and in a better way than hay does. Hay, because it’s dried in the sun, allows a lot of the vitamins to degrade. But this method of fermenting the bales keeps it in top quality and, you know, like with fermented foods for humans, there’s actually a few vitamins that are enhanced by the bacterial action. So it’s really top quality feed for the cattle and they love it. Today, it’s well, it’s gotten up to two degrees. It was down to negative eight last night, so not the coldest it gets but it’s pretty cold today. And I’ve got my microphone on here so you don’t pick up so much of the wind, but there’s a pretty stiff wind going on right now too. It’s chilly, so obviously we’re not growing any grass this time of year and we have grass-fed cattle, so this is how we feed them grass during the winter.
All right, let’s go after the bales.
We’ll cut the bale wrap off.
Underneath the bale wrap is this net wrap. This just holds it together until we get it out to the cattle. This is the plastic. I’ll take and I’ll roll it up and I’ll save it for recycling.
So for the winter I store all my old bale wrap in here. Then we’ll take it to the recycling center in the spring.

At Wrong Direction Farm, we feed our cattle bales of spring grass all winter long. Similar to hay, this is called baleage. During the flush of spring growth we have more grass than our cattle can eat, so we mow it and bale it up for winter.

Winter Feeding Options

In some of the drier parts of the country, cattle can directly graze the grass year-round. There are some grasses, like fescues and native prairie grasses that, surprisingly, can be more palatable to the cattle during the dormant season. In midwestern and western states, where the rainfall amounts are lower and the grasses tend to stand up above any snow, many herds of cattle can be grazed through the winter with very little need for stored forage.

The Northeast, especially for those of us in the I-90 corridor or points northward, is a very different environment. Our soil types and our wet summers don’t favor varieties of grass that provide good winter grazing. Our winters often involve plastering layers of ice that flatten our grasses to the ground. The one grass on our farm that can stand up to a fair amount of winter precipitation is called Reed Canarygrass. And while it is a great summer forage, it becomes gray-brown and loses all its nutrition after the frosts.

When I first started farming, the loudest voices in the grass fed industry came from the Western and Southern states. They talked about how it was possible to graze cattle year round on standing grass, or failing that, to feed dry hay that was left outside all winter. I tried those things, but I came to realize that our context is quite different. I could learn from other cattle farmers and ranchers, but I couldn’t blindly imitate them.

In Upstate New York we need much better winter grass to feed to our cattle if we expect to grow good, strong steers and heifers without any supplementation. What works in the Dakotas, or Missouri, or Georgia, doesn’t have to work here. The grasses are different, the weather is different. It makes sense that each area’s agriculture should be reflective of its distinctive seasonal patterns.

The Difference between Hay and Baleage

So let’s look at what we feed during the winter.

We’re feeding what has come to be known as “baleage” (or sometimes spelled “balage”), a portmanteau of bales and ensilage. Ensilage refers to the process of controlled fermentation of forage for livestock feed. In earlier forms of agriculture, this was accomplished in a laborious process of burying harvested plants or crops in earth-covered pits, trenches, or in older usage “clamps”. But as a general term it can be used for any situation where plant matter is compacted together and stored for a long time in a low-oxygen environment to encourage fermentation.

When we are making either hay or baleage, the process begins the same way. We mow a field and let the grass begin to dry down. For hay, we need to get the moisture levels down very quickly, so it usually is raked to fluff it and to expose new surfaces for dehydration. If you’ve ever placed your hand in a pile of fresh grass clippings, you’ll recognize how much heat they can generate. We don’t want hay bales to sit with wet, hot cores, otherwise they can mold or rot in place or, in some situations, actually self-combust and burn down an entire hay storage building. Hay is dehydrated grass.

But with baleage, we change things up to take advantage of the water and the microorganisms in the grass. Our goal is to create a controlled fermentation environment. So we only dry the grass enough to wilt it, just enough that our bales aren’t dripping wet. Then we wrap the hay in an airtight membrane, and we let that ferment for at least six months.

Nutrition in Stored Grass

As with traditional fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee, and aged salami, we’re mainly relying on the work of Lactobacillus strains to do the fermentation. There are companies that sell inoculant cultures to be sprayed onto grasses as they are baled, but we find that the naturally occurring bacteria in our fields are sufficient to consistently create a good lactic ferment.

The advantage of feeding baleage over dry hay bales comes from the enhanced nutrition in the feed. The sun-drying process in haymaking drops plant carbohydrate levels, degrades some of the proteins, oxidizes the fats, and destroys vitamins. But fermentation helps to hold most of the nutrient levels near their original values, while boosting a few of the antioxidant vitamins in the process. As a result of switching from hay to baleage, we’ve seen our steers and heifers growing more over the winter. With dry hay, their weights would often stand still or decline slightly.

I suppose a few balancing words are in order. This isn’t meant to indicate that hay is categorically bad or that baleage is categorically good. Much depends on the grass itself, the weather at the time of harvest, and the storage conditions. I’m sure one could find samples of hay that would test better than poorly made baleage. But on balance, I find that I consistently get better results with the baleage I’m using than with the hay I used to feed our herd.

Good Grass All Year

Given a choice of seasons, of course I prefer the green months, when we’re moving the cattle to fresh, living grass every day. There’s nothing to match the joy in watching them stretching out their tongues and pulling in large clumps of grass, just mowing their way across a field in June. In midwinter, when I look at summertime pictures of the farm it is almost hard to believe that we live in that same place.

But there’s also something special on these cold winter days, when I unwrap a bale and feed the cattle, watching them jostle each other to be the first one to get a good mouthful of grass. Each bale is a time capsule, preserving the grass from a particular sunny, warm afternoon.

Empty Shelves and Farm Economics

My mom sent me pictures of the meat cases at her nearby grocery store. Many shelves were sparsely filled, while others were completely bare. We seem to be facing wave after wave of disruptions in our commodity markets, and there’s little sign of these oscillations damping any time soon.

Not exactly empty, but this isn’t the sort of meat case we’re used to seeing in stores.

Now, I’m not here to whip up a frenzy about scarcity. You don’t need to panic buy. Our farm is well-stocked, and as I trend things out, I don’t foresee any danger of food shortages at WDF.

But it provides a good opportunity to talk about the macro-economic issues of the day as they affect our farm. Every economic story you read sems to press three big buttons: labor shortages, inflation, and supply chain disruptions. So let’s run down each of these in brief and discuss how they are impacting our farm.

Labor

This is the easiest to address since all of the farm’s labor currently comes from within our family. The workforce is secure for the present. In a couple of years this will change as the older two kids enter college and begin to project their lives into new directions. So at some point in the near future I’ll need to consider how to incorporate outside employees, but that isn’t an issue for this year.

One area where I have been rethinking labor is in regards to my own. I’ve always done things myself: construction, repairs, maintenance. But I’m trying to let some of those jobs go, hiring out work to others so I can focus more on the management of the farm. It feels weird, almost a bit embarrassing, to bring a truck in to a mechanic to replace the exhaust manifold. This is work I’ve done for myself for many years. But the farm has needs that I’m best suited to address, and there are lots of other people who are in a better position to fix the truck. Although this change has been hard to accept, I’ve been glad to see the farm flourish in new ways as I’ve been able to focus more of my attention on it without the distraction of more periphery matters.

Inflation

Consumer prices are reported to be in the 6-7% inflation range year over year. But when I look at the bills I’m paying on the farm, most of them are much higher than their levels during this period last winter. Poultry feed prices are up 40% and will probably surge higher this summer. The new cardboard boxes I ordered are 19% more than last year. Dry ice jumped 31%. Freezer warehouse prices for our pallets in storage went up 10%. I wanted to order a trailer to replace our worn-out dump trailer, but between my first and second visit to the dealer the price increased 48%!

The only recent prices I’ve seen that are in line with the consumer price index are the new fees we’re paying for shipping (UPS raised its prices by 6%). In looking at my recent bills, I can only find one bill that is still at the same level as last year – my monthly internet service. I don’t have the data or the knowledge to argue whether the Consumer Price Index is representative, but if I were to create a “Farmer Price Index” I’d peg inflation above 10%.

Supply Chain Chaos

We have experienced some difficulty with supply chain shortages during 2020 and 2021. At various times we ran into problems at the retail side with cardboard, box insulation, ice packs, vacuum bags for meat, and dry ice. On the farm backend, we also dealt with long backorders on portable electric fence supplies, equipment tires, vehicle repair parts, and assorted pieces of hardware. I don’t know what the next shortage will be in 2022, but I’m sure something will catch us unprepared.

One supply issue of special concern is with the national Organic grain stockpile. Several key grain ingredients are unavailable or in short supply. The most proximate cause is the devastating crop failures experienced by farmers in the Canadian prairies last year. This has cascaded across the global market and translated into extremely limited stocks of the higher-protein grain crops, particularly yellow peas, sunflower seeds, and flax seeds. Organic soybeans and soybean meal are also harder to get this year. The whole Organic grain market is a mess, so we’ll have to pick our way through things carefully.

Resilient Food

As much as I like to champion the social value of distributed, local, and small food producers as an alternative to the dominant consolidated, too-big-to-fail system, I can’t pretend that our farm is immune to larger disruptions. We’re all buffeted by the same forces. Whether they be natural, political, or economic forces, they’re challenging for everyone.

But I still believe that if we want to build resiliency into our society, we would be better off by being honest about the structural fragilities inherent in concentrations of power and production. We could fashion a more stable, more dependable food system if we brought our consumption patterns into a more regionally-appropriate and locally-sourced model.

I want to see a flourishing landscape of producers. And I want more direct connections between producers and consumers. That’s my hope.

And to reassure you once again… A few people have contacted me recently wondering if they should stock up because of the food shortages they’re hearing about. While I’d be delighted to get a bunch of big orders, I don’t think we’re in any kind of panic situation. We have plenty of food. All three of our freezers are full, and we have pallets of frozen meat stored in another off-site freezer warehouse.

Plans Built on Grass

Everything I plan is stacked on layers of utterly unpredictable events and utterly uncontrollable forces. And yet I find that the more planning I do, the better prepared I am for the year.

Winter is time for farm planning. This year, I keep returning to Eisenhower’s wartime aphorism: “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

I suspect the principal benefit from these planning activities comes from immersing myself in possible failures. Forecasting allows me to become acquainted with some, although not all, of the ways my plans might run aground. In thinking through the possible movements and flows, I can foresee various alternatives. The exercise itself creates the limberness needed for the moments of crisis. When the inevitable blindside comes, I will have at least practiced enough to have developed some heuristic patterns for routing the farm toward better outcomes. Or that’s my hope.

As I create the plans for the farm, I’m never starting with a blank slate. I’m working within a complicated biological system. Each aspect has capacities, opportunities, and constraints. On top of that biological system, I’m trying to layer on an economical system, something that requires infrastructure and labor, something that produces products, and, hopefully, something that pays enough to keep our family doing this work year after year.

The Land Base

This farm is a 97 acre patch of land. It is predominantly pasture, with hedgerows and woods breaking up the fields. Half of the farm is hillside, half is flat. The soil is heavy clay and prone to puddling. The farm grows grass abundantly from May through August, and then grows grass slowly between September and early November.

Aerial view of the farm. Google last updated this in 2016, so it is a bit dated.

But beyond these generalizations, each field has a different character. Slope, sun exposure, wind exposure, and soil type vary across the farm. Even basic soil fertility levels are surprisingly variable, with one field out back stubbornly holding out at 3% Soil Organic Matter while another one just 500 feet away measures 6.5% Soil Organic Matter.

Each field has something to offer, and each one requires a knowing approach from us. The lowlands will hold water in dry times while the slopes will provide dry ground in wet times. Our more heavily wooded fields grow less forage, but provide welcome shade on hot summer days. Each paddock fits into its place within the farm ecosystem.

Grass is Central to Planning

Weather will always be a fickle partner, sometimes helping the farm and sometimes betraying it. Crop yields vary, and occasional total crop failures are unavoidable. But I can insulate the farm from some of these fluctuations by anchoring it in grass and grazing it with grass fed herbivores. Unlike annual crops, grass has perennial roots in the soil, so the pastures can persist in both wet and dry years. Grass growth will of course be influenced by the weather, but it won’t ever be a total bust the way a planted crop can be.

Grass therefore is the cornerstone resource on Wrong Direciton Farm, and the grass fed cattle that graze it must therefore be the cornerstone species. All my plans are built around the cycles of grass growth, the patterns of cattle grazing that grass, and the subsequent cycles of regrowth.

Cattle take their time to size up on grass. They are born on the farm next door, but arrive here between six and eight months old when they are weaned. They’ll then remain on our pastures for another one and a half years just eating grass. There is a slow-moving cycle of cattle entering the farm, growing, being slaughtered and butchered, and then being replaced with new calves. This creates the synchronization signal of the farm’s clock.

Fitting in the Birds

Perhaps the chickens and turkeys would be surprised to learn this, but I only plan for them after I’ve laid plans for grazing cattle. In our pasture system, poultry are secondary pasture users. Although cattle can get all their nutrition from grass, the birds can’t do this. Their nutritional needs are different, so grass is just one component of their diets.

The pasture raised poultry are more schedule-dependent than cattle. The poultry season begins in April and ends in November. The birds grow more quickly than the cattle, but their management requires more intense involvement from us. They depend on us for food, shelter, and protection from predators. As we plan for our year ahead, we need to match our customer demands to a production schedule during these few months.

Planning and Adjusting

But despite all this talk of planning, I’ll need to keep a loose grip on everything, admitting that at best I’m just guessing on probabilities.

Will it rain at all the right times? Will our economy hold up with high inflation rates? Will China’s hoarding of the world’s grain stockpile create a chicken feed crisis? Will I be struck by lightning?

I don’t know.

I’m building my plans with as much flexibility as possible. I’m confident that some good grass will grow. And that some of my plans will be duds. I can only do my best.

Ice covered teasels. Photo Credit Rachel Perozzi

Farm Goals for 2022

Enjoying the quiescence of our winter schedule, Rachel and I have been using this time to make plans for Wrong Direction Farm for the new year.

Whenever I do my listmaking, I invariably fill the sheet with all sorts of unachievable goals. Farming is nothing, if not a good way to reinforce feelings of inadequacy for the challenges at hand. I know all the life coaching types tell people to make sure their goals are reasonable, but that’s just not my style. I prefer audacious lists. My complete goals list is long, specific, and deranged.

But I’ll spare you the crazy list and take this opportunity to share the five top tier items that might be interesting to our customers. These are the goals that actually feel achievable, and the ones that will help set the tone for the coming year.

1. New Farm Website

We’ve been chugging away creating a complete overhaul of the farm website, and we hope to have that launched by February. The current site is homemade, patched together from many different development projects. This time we are working with a real live web developer to straighten things up. I’m pleased with the new site that is emerging.

2. Bring Science to the Pastures

Rachel will be working with our friends at Cairncrest Farm and Reber Rock Farm on a group project of measuring pasture growth and cattle performance in a detailed manner. We’ve always known kinda sorta where pasture productivity stood, but next year we’re going to be actually collecting grass tonnage measurements so we can bring our pasture grazing management up a few notches.

3. Turkey Expansion

We realized that we are in a good position to supply young turkeys to other farmers in our local area. Turkeys are challenging to raise during their first few weeks after hatching. We’ve talked with other farmers who want to raise turkeys but don’t want to deal with the pesky juvenile period. We think that this will be a good opportunity since we have some expertise in this aspect of poultry rearing. Within the first week of talking with a small group of local farms, we suddenly find ourselves with orders for 700 extra turkeys this summer and fall.

4. Integrated Annual Forages on Pasture

This past summer I began experimenting with having the chickens trample corn seeds into the ground. I’m going to be scaling up this experimentation with corn and oats. I’m also looking into mixing in some clover and perhaps something more rooty, like daikon radishes or turnips. My goal is to produce additional pasture forage in the richly fertilized ground behind the chicken shelters as we move them across the pastures. The perennial grasses regrow on their own, but I think we might be able to get more total plant growth by interseeding trampled-in annual crops.

5. More Food Focus

I found that people really seemed to appreciate the recipes we posted. Folks especially connected with the turkey roasting video I made with my mom. So for 2022 we’re going to be placing a more consistent focus on all the ways to cook and eat WDF’s grass fed and pasture raised meats. We’re fortunate to have a friend of the farm in Chef Katy Sparks. She already contributed two recipes (Hard Cider and Leek Braised Chicken Thighs and Chile Mole with Grass Fed Ground Beef) and she’s planning on helping us with a longer series of great recipes over the coming months. So expect to see more recipes and more video content about our meat.

Happy New Year

Thanks to all of you who have been with us through 2021 and for all the years before that. We are privileged to be your farmers.

We wish you the best for 2022.

When Your Fancy Free Range Chicken Comes from the Same Place as Walmart’s Chicken

I was intrigued to read this morning a new article from ProPublica on the chicken industry. The piece covers two somewhat divergent topics. One topic relates to the sourcing of chicken, the other relates to bacterial contamination rates in certain product lines. We could explore either topic, but the chicken sourcing item is of more interest to me. The presence of bacteria in these chickens probably isn’t new news, but the confusing web of sourcing is a topic that might surprise readers.

The ProPublica research found that poultry products are all being processed by the same group of industrial chicken slaughterhouses and packaging facilities. For instance, one Perdue factory in Delaware is producing chicken under different labels for Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Whole Foods, Kroger, and ButcherBox. The same few corporations and the same few mega-scale slaughter and meatpacking facilities are processing almost all our chicken and turkey.

Despite the appearance that we have a variety of choices and brands, it’s all an fabrication. The food industry is steadily shrinking under the gravitational pull of consolidation. Independent-sounding labels persist long after the smaller companies have been gobbled up by that conglomerates, like Pasturebird now being part of Perdue or Grass Run Farms being part of the world’s largest meatpacker JBS. There is very little choice left, and these choices constrain us to choose among the largest industrial players.

Nationwide Distribution, Nationwide Obfuscation

We could imagine a naïve customer entering a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, or buying online at ButcherBox, thinking that it would be good to buy a premium chicken because they don’t trust the low-brow grocery store brands from Walmart or Kroger, not knowing that they’re all sourced from the same place under a different label.

But are we as consumers really that gullible? Don’t we know at some level that anything at these stores must be sourced from the same national organizations? Shouldn’t we realize we’re still just buying from the same old, same old supply chain? How could they have their market reach and their ability to consistently supply millions of sale units every week without that kind of sourcing homogeneity behind it all?

Our system of commerce worships at the altar of scale. Nothing is fundable in our capital markets unless it is scalable. And nothing is scalable unless it is commoditized and interchangeable. Once something is interchangeable, then the same factory can produce the same widget for Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Whole Foods, Kroger, and ButcherBox. The consumer can’t tell the difference, because there is no difference. The only perceived difference is in the marketing hype and the design of the label.

Whenever we purchase a product from a grocery, food delivery service, or restaurant, especially one not directly connected with its suppliers, we have to assume that there is an entire opaque supply chain behind it all. The opacity isn’t just a consequence of the complexity. It is also a design choice. We aren’t meant to see behind the curtain. They’d rather we didn’t trouble ourselves about it.

We could blame the corporations for creating the charade of variety. Or we could blame ourselves for choosing ignorance when we should have known it would play out this way. Probably the blame spreads both ways.

Really Real Transparency

At Wrong Direction Farm, we’re here because we want to take a path leading in a different direction. We aren’t chasing scale and growth, rather we’re focused on actually making a difference with our farming. Instead of hiding the facts, we want to be clear about our farming. I hope the archive of all the many years of candid blogging helps demonstrate our willingness to be real with our customers.

In the spirit of unvarnished truth-telling, here are four things you should know about Wrong Direction Farm’s chicken and turkey:

  1. Our chickens and turkeys are raised here on our farm. We aren’t re-labeling chickens from another source.
  2. Our poultry are Certified Organic and raised on grass pastures. We are absolutely committed to both Organic and Pasture-Raised standards. And we never use misleading terms like Free Range.
  3. Our birds are slaughtered and packed at a small shop just 10 minutes from the farm, run by two full time guys and a couple of part time helpers. They really embody the same small-scale ethos that we have in our approach to farming.
  4. I will always answer questions about our products. Today someone called to ask about packaging. Yesterday someone called to ask about organic feed. Feel free to talk to us, you won’t get a marketing agent answering the phone, you’ll actually speak with the farmer.

Rachel’s Thoughts on Herding Cattle

Rachel recorded this video about how she herds the cattle when she needs to gather them from a large field. As with most other skilled activities, it can look easy and natural, but that’s only the case after one has learned to read situations and developed instincts for working carefully and thoughtfully.

Transcript

Hi I’m Rachel and I want to talk about how we move cattle at Wrong Direction Farm.

Today we’re moving a small group of cattle from the large pasture into the corral. So when I do this it’s really an interesting process because the cattle are herd animals and they want to stay in a group. There are individual cattle who will sometimes go rogue and move out of the herd. And so I want to be careful not to allow too much of that straying. I want to keep the cattle bunched and I want to keep them moving in the direction that I want them to travel. So, often I’ll bring the four-wheeler out and I’ll start doing a large “S” behind them because I want them to feel just a little pressure, enough to begin to walk in the direction that I want them to go. But I don’t want too much pressure because I don’t want a stampede. Since cattle are herd animals they will follow the one who decides to put forth initiative so I want to make sure that I don’t have any of those leaders on the edges of my group. And so I’m constantly like doing this weaving pattern back and forth behind the cattle to move them in the direction that I want them to go.
We find that it’s helpful to bring up more than just the cattle that we want because cattle like feeling safe and they feel safe in numbers. So when we want to bring a group — peacefully, gently, calmly — up to the corral, say we want to bring six up ,so we’ll bring twelve up. Generally it’s Dave’s walking in front of them and I’m easing behind them with a four-wheeler or I’ll be walking behind them as well just enough to guide them up into the corral. And then once we’re in there we’ll separate the ones that we want to move to the side and then we let the remaining out. When we let the remaining out they just make their way gently back to the rest of the herd because they want to be with a bigger herd.
So we want to make sure that anything we do takes into account the cattle’s need for safety and calm. We don’t want to upset the cattle. We don’t want to disturb them in any way. It’s not safe for the cattle; it’s not safe for the humans who are working with them. So we just want to make sure everyone’s calm.

It is interesting that some of this discussion is so seasonally dependent. During the summer when the cattle are grazing small grass paddocks, they are accustomed to moving every day and they get into a rhythm of eagerly following us to fresh grass. But during the winter when they are spread across larger fields, it takes more work to round them up into a bunch and then to get them to move as a unit.

Always Amazed By Cows

Grass fed steer standing in a pasture at Wrong Direction Farm.

I found two stories this week that corroborate my observations about the power of cattle to improve diversity in the landscape. I don’t claim that cattle will always be the solution to any problem, but I do believe that when managed well, they can be the solution to a broad range of problems.

Minecraft and Cattlecraft

There’s some fascinating work coming out of Chihuahua Mexico related to mine reclamation. After displacing an entire hill for mining, mine operators bulldoze the spoils back into place leaving a bare rubble pile. Part of their responsibility for environmental remediation includes planting vegetation, but this is challenging due to the aridity of desert environment and the amount of topsoil disruption.

The unique solution being tested is using cattle to biologically activate the topsoil and also using them to establish plants. There’s a lengthy podcast interview here where rancher Enrique Guerrero describes his experimental work in using cattle to jumpstart topsoil formation in the middle of a pile of bare rocks and dirt.

The mine operators covered the bare bulldozed ground with native grass seeds. Then they sheeted the entire surface with a thick bedding of chopped cornstalks and straw. Enrique brought in 99 cows and one bull, placed them in tightly fenced rectangular blocks. The cattle were fed and housed in one particular paddock per day, and then moved to a new paddock the next day. As the cattle moved across the mountain, they trampled the mulch into contact with the soil, added their manure and urine, and in doing so created a high-moisture, high-fertility mat for successful seedling germination.

Grass is now back on this mountain. But not just grass. Birds, deer, and turkeys are moving in. The cattle aren’t simply growing plants, they are ushering in an overall life cycle renewal.

The cattle in this project were fed a grain supplement, which of course is something we never do on our farm. But I’m not here to poke at that. I think similar landscape results could have be accomplished in feeding cattle high quality grass hay without the need for grain. The point is that cattle can be transformative in an otherwise ruined environment.

Take a look at the following video. It contains a lot of self-adulation by the mining company, so be prepared for that. I suppose mining operations don’t get a lot of chances to present themselves as heroes, so they lay it on thick.

For the most interesting view, skip forward to the 4:07 mark and look at the aerial shots of the mountain as the grass is beginning to grow. You can see all the green squares where the cattle have been and then compare that to the completely bare patches where they haven’t yet grazed.

Cows and Biodiversity in Vernal Pools

The University of California published a write up on the effect of grazing cattle on vernal ponds. These are seasonal ponds that form during rainy periods, but for most of the year they remain dry. The pools are home to many unique and endangered plant species.

In the 1970s and 1980s, conservationists fenced ponds to exclude livestock in hopes of preserving these habitats. Instead of helping, they learned that the protected plant species lost ground as other plants began invading the vernal pools. The ecosystems were dysfunctional when grazing animals were excluded from them.

Researchers brought cattle back into these areas for grazing. This is has resulted in greater species biodiversity, and the turn-around time was unexpectedly rapid. Some future research will investigate the ways in which cow hoofprints function as “micro-ponds”, allowing for additional water capture and creating thousands of tiny specialized environments for plants to flourish.

If I were doing the research, I’d want to know what would happen if cattle and sheep could be mixed. In my observation, because they have slightly different grazing preferences and also because their hoof action is different, I’d hypothesize that overall the mixed herd would promote even greater plant diversity. If we look at much of North America’s grazing history, grazing herds would have included a mix of herbivores, ranging from bison at the large end, down through antelope, wild sheep, and deer in the middle, and rabbits, gophers, ground hogs, and rodents at the small end. It is my belief that mimicking a blended herd would be the most restorative approach.

Cow Tools

If we value grasslands and meadows in our environment, and if we can concede lawnmowers aren’t the best tool for maintaining them, then we’ll need to graze our grasslands with herbivores. Grass without animals is a broken ecosystem.

The study from California tells us that trying to protect wild ecosystems by excluding cattle has had the opposite effect. And the work in Mexico reveals that cattle can revive utterly broken landscapes. The more we understand livestock’s role in rendering ecosystem services, the more it becomes clear that many of the arguments against meat are too narrowly focused. If we can produce nutritious food while supporting and rebuilding our environment, meat can be one of the most sensible food choices.

Installing Fence Posts on the Farm

Our high tensile fences in the pastures are strung on wooden fence posts, each sunk four feet deep. Over the years we’ve slowly added permanent fences throughout the farm. We’re inching our way to the finish line, this year adding posts in some of the back pastures.

Here’s a video showing the equipment we use for installing our fence posts.

Transcript

Hey, I’m Dave, your farmer from Wrong Direction Farm. Today and yesterday I’ve been installing some fence posts out here in the back pasture. So we use a rental piece of equipment for that. It’s a post pounder. This one’s actually a newer model that the rental place has. It has a vibratory head, so you put it on top of the fence post and it just vibrates it right into the ground. We sink our posts about four feet deep. Digging these by hand, or even using an auger on the back of a tractor, they always get hung up on rocks. So we found that a post pounder is really the most efficient and effective way to get posts into the ground and, you know, have them anchored there for the long term. So it’s always a big job to get the posts in. We try to gang up a bunch of work to do at once when I rent this equipment to make the best use of the rental fee. And then afterwards I’ll go out here with some galvanized wire and start stringing it up between the posts and get some more fences up.

I’ve dug plenty of fence posts by hand, and I’ve used post hole augers. But both methods are slow. And with all the boulders in our soil, this is frustrating work. So instead, I use post drivers. Drivers get the job done in a fraction of the time. Importantly, because the adjacent soil hasn’t been disturbed or backfilled, the posts are more likely to remain in their original positions without canting or heaving over time.

Installing posts using the older machine in June 2018

Above is a picture from several years ago when I was installing posts using a older model machine. This one lifted a heavy weighted section high into the air and slammed it down. It worked, and I used it for many hundreds of posts, but it had some drawbacks. It would occasionally shatter posts, sending large log-sized sections flying. And then of course there’s the general risk of heavy weights crashing down near the operator’s head, shoulders, and arms. There’s a family story of Rachel’s grandfather crushing his hand with one of these. That always gives me the shivers just thinking about it.

The business end of the machine. That plunger shaped cap is connected to a high speed impact head.

The newer machine employs a vibratory impact head instead of relying on brute force. This is a significant improvement. The slammer-type drivers would often cause the posts to jump around a bit before sinking them. That behavior was particularly troubling on steep slopes, where the base of the post would often slide downhill before embedding into the ground. The vibratory machines allow for superior placement precision. Another advantage is that when working with large diameter end posts or whenever driving into hard ground, the vibratory switch can be latched into position and the operator can walk away while the hydraulics keep on hammering.

With all these posts set in the ground, the next task will be stringing all the high tensile wire. This week I set up a couple of small sections of wire. But with all the other winter projects going on, I anticipate that the remainder of the job will have to wait until next spring.

The Phone Call We Dread

Grass fed beef calves grazing in the winter pasture at WDF

“You aren’t asleep, are you?”

It was 10:15 Sunday night and my neighbor Mike was calling. I knew it wouldn’t be good news.

“Your cows are up next to my barn. A big group of them.”

And there goes a perfectly good evening…

A couple days before, Mike had brought over this year’s group of calves. They’re born on his pastures next door, and they wean away from their mothers over at our farm. They spend the next year-and-a-half to two years on our farm, fattening up on grass.

Their first two days here, everything had been going well. So well, that I had intended to be writing this blog post about our system to receiving calves. “Let not many of you be teachers”, as the saying goes…

Apparently one of the calves spooked during the night, crashing through the fences and creating a path for the others to follow. In the heady rush for freedom in the dark, they ended up going through multiple sets of fences, both temporary fences and permanent fences.

So we did a cattle drive on a cloudy, moonless night, finishing about 2:30 AM with the last of the strays rounded up. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to herd the cattle in the dark, around corners and over terrain. But strangely enough we found that some aspects were easier than daylight herding. Using flashlights or the headlights on the four-wheeler, we could illuminate a path and the cattle usually chose to avoid the bright lights and to follow the path we made for them. It seemed as though their reduced vision allowed the cattle to focus more on our position, and thus to respond better to our herding motion.

Grass fed calves standing in a group at Wrong Direction Farm
The calves, now returned to their winter pasture, are still hanging together in a tight group. Over the next few days, they’ll feel more relaxed among the older cattle and integrate into a more cohesive herd identity with the others.

“The Cows Are Out!” are the words of woe for any beef or dairy farmer. The real estate agent who sold us this farm used to be a dairy farmer. He told the story of working unending hours and, as a music lover, being delighted to finally get a day off to attend a concert. Just before the lights dimmed, the PA system crackled with the announcement, “Attention Mr and Mrs V., your cows are out.” And so they left the concert to return home to deal with the escapees.

It has been quite a few years since we had a blowout escape like this, and I hope we don’t have to deal with another one for a long, long time. In the early days, when we had very little permanent fencing, we sure had some fiascos. Those are times I’d soon forget.

For now, the cows are in.

Soil Needs Animals

I need to become a better communicator about soil. It is a topic that few people outside of farming give much thought to. With its biological and chemical complexity, it is challenging to condense the ideas down to an easily-grasped summary. But the communication problem may not be entirely the fault of the complexity of the concept. It might also be because I haven’t talked through it as much as I need to. Perhaps with more repetition I’ll find a better presentation.

In that spirit, here’s a brief video from a few days ago, where I reflect on the soil ecosystem implications of divorcing animals and plants from each other.