Goodbye Hay

That’s a bad pun and one that’s not entirely appropriate as we haven’t grown or cut hay at Hickory Nut Gap for several years now. For some reason I can’t seem to begin these blog posts without some sort of joke or catchphrase, even if they’re terrible.

When most cattle farmers find out that we don’t cut hay, they are incredulous. “What, how do you feed the cows during the winter? You must spend a lot of money buying bales”, is a pretty common response when someone finds out we don’t raise our own hay or make corn silage. The fact is though, we don’t need to. What’s the secret?

Strip grazing.

Though you may begin to fantasize of shirtless young farm hands moving cows through languid green pastures, this is not an ag. version of strip poker . Strip grazing and related terms like mob or intensive grazing are gaining ground among agricultural as well as foodie communities around the country. If it’s new to you, strip grazing is a simple idea with extraordinary consequences in the pasture. Basically, our cows are not permitted to graze on an entire pasture all at once. If they were, they would eat only the choicest morsels of grass, leaving or trampling everything that is less desirable. This is not only an inefficient system in terms of food availability, it also depletes pastures of vital nutrients and encourages the growth of those plants and grasses that the animals don’t find particularly pleasant.

The cows run out of food faster, and when things grow back, there is less good stuff to eat.

Instead, we divide our fields into narrow strips with plastic posts and wire reels. The cows are permitted to graze on one strip of pasture for an allotted amount of time depending on the time of year, number of cows, and size of the pasture. When they have consumed all the grass in one strip, we remove the reel and posts separating them from the next strip, and then put up a back fence to keep them off the part of the pasture that has already been grazed.

This method forces the cows to do several things. First, it gives the animals less choice of grasses to eat, thereby forcing them to consume all of the existing forage rather than just the best parts. The hungry animals also eat more of the available grass before needing to move to a new strip. Finally, the manure, which is a vital part of the cow-pasture relationship, is evenly distributed throughout the pasture instead of being concentrated around the richest parts of the pasture with the best grass: fertility distribution made easy.

Strip grazing allows us to utilize pasture space more effectively and draw out our forage through the winter. We stockpile grass instead of cutting it all down and stockpiling hay.  Strip grazing also helps to maintain healthy pastures and keeps us from needing to feed hay, even in the winter when the grass is no longer growing.

This is a long post, but I hope that the material is at least interesting, if not revelatory. Explaining the things I learn on the farm helps me to better understand the concepts myself and see the gaps in my own understanding.