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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.

best,

Sweetbread

Some Thoughts On Death

When school groups come to the farm for field trips, I’ve noticed that, among the parents and teachers, there exists one of two ideologies about the kids’ farm education. When we take the youngsters up to see the baby chicks or the calves and piglets, the question of longevity inevitably comes up. “What happens to them when they grow up?”, “Where are all the mommy pigs?”, “Why do you keep them inside pens?”… When these sorts of investigations arise, I always take a glance at the parents to see how graphic I need to be. Can I use the word slaughter? That is only for the most extreme (often those alternative outdoor experimental schools). Can I talk about hamburgers and bacon? Sometimes the parents react more strongly to this than the kids.

On other occasions, the teachers are gung-ho about delving into the steak-ness of a cow. The other day I was leading a group of third graders through the farm tour and their teacher wouldn’t let up. During our visit to each of the animal pens he pressed the kids about what meat that creature was good for. By the end of the field trip I was surprised that the kids weren’t looking at each other and trying to figure out what the most tender cut of human would be.

Truth is, I don’t really appreciate either of these mentalities in the chaperones. I think that an over exuberance about the end product misses the point just as completely as an inability to talk about the difference between a beef cow and a dairy cow. I think the parents can learn just as much as their kids from a trip to the farm. What I know about small scale farming is that all the details have to be intimately connected in order to sustain a healthy system. Whenever Jamie leads a farm tour, he talks a lot about biodiversity. We are trying to mimic a kind of natural biodiversity in which plants, animals, fungi, lichen, bacteria… all work together. If we focus too much on one part of the system then we blind ourselves to the beauty and intricacy of the whole.

We don’t raise animals just for meat. That is a part of what we do. But we also manage our cows on pasture in such a way as to increase the nutrient density in the soils, prevent erosion, protect from drought, and encourage other pasture critters to thrive. We put our hogs on land overgrown with multiflora rose and scrubby trees that we hope to turn into pasture after a time. We keep our goats out on poison ivy and privet control. A local bee-keeper has several hives around the farm to help pollinate our fruit trees and pasture flowers. While it’s important to acknowledge that the animals do die and that they provide us with delicious, fresh meat, it’s equally important to understand that the animals are an imperative part of the farm ecosystem. Not just in their death, but in the way that they live and interact with all the other forces that are in the constant flux of birth, growth, and death.

I know that’s a lot to take in for a third grader. It’s a lot to take in for an adult! That is what agri-tourism is all about, though. I hope that at least some of that will make it through to the folks who come visit this place, or any farm for that matter.

Sweetbread

A Change in Plans

Working on a small farm is a continuous lesson in the complete and unreserved ability to change priorities without a second thought. Some days we set out with a singular goal in mind, one which we’ve been planning for weeks, and then we get a call that the pigs are out or Jamie has a vision for some new project that no one has contemplated before and that idea becomes the singular focus of the ensuing weeks or months even. As a recent college graduate this environment of flexibility is absolutely refreshing. After four years (really sixteen years if we go all the way back to the beginning) of having rigid schedules set years in advance and invariably marked out on the school calendar with no thought for spontaneity, the freedom to address only the most pressing problems as they arise is wonderful.    Alright, public school is not so inflexible as all that, and farming should not be idealized as a carefree or whimsical occupation. Sometimes the newest exploit isn’t exciting. Entire days are literally spent shoveling manure or mucking through pastures or crashing through thickets of multiflora rose, grapevines, and privet to pull out old barbed wire. There are plenty of mundane, uninspiring tasks, plenty of thoughtless physical jobs, plenty of cold mornings when the thought of bed and a hot breakfast is much more enticing than the frost covered seat of the tractor, but, even still, there is a freedom in the work that, for me, lends inspiration even to the least inspiring task. I am never completely certain how the next hour will be spent or what small new adventure is waiting to unfold.

Our special little Black Angus mix can’t see out of his left eye very well so he holds his head as if he’s deliberately trying to ignore you

This morning as I was getting ready to feed the pigs Ann called with the news that the cows were out. We hauled most of the herd down to Rutherfordton yesterday to overwinter and the only ones we left in Fairview were the male Holsteins, the bull, and a unique little Black Angus mix calf.  Holsteins are milking cows. We buy a few males every year for the agritourism season in the fall because they are cute calves and they’re cheap and they look like your average person’s idea of a cow (probably something to do with the black spots). Neighbors and farm families usually raise these calves for meat, but they’re not ideally suited for that purpose so we don’t normally keep them with our herd. What with being bottlefed for several months and having to put up with screaming elementary schoolers nearly every day, they become unafraid of human contact and subsequently they are some of the most difficult animals on the farm to herd. This morning they simply refused to let Ann and me direct them back into the pasture. It was a strange dynamic between the black angus mix, who couldn’t seem to understand what we were doing flapping our arms at him, the Holsteins who clearly thought we were playing some strange and ridiculous game with them, and the bull, who just plain didn’t care what we were doing, as long as he could continue to eat in peace. You just can’t push a bull too hard. You might suggest he move in one direction, but if he doesn’t want to go, there’s not a whole lot you can do. Frankly, I’m surprised that he hasn’t just crushed one of the Holsteins for nudging him with their horns the way they do. It took us nearly half an hour to move the outlandish little herd only fifty feet, but Ann and I were able to get all the animals back into the pasture without riling anyone up too badly, except maybe for some of the neighbors on Ambiance Way. I guess you can’t please everyone.
salutations,

Sweetbread

Our bull isn’t enormous as far as bulls go but look at those shoulder muscles! He doesn’t quite know what to think of this strange little Holstein calf.

 

Carmelized Cabbage Rolls with Beef and Pork

This recipe, from Heartland The Cookbook, interprets the Turkish version of stuffed cabbage which uses syrup to carmelize the rolls.

Ingredients:
1 medium head green cabbage
3/4 cup plus 1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup short ggrain or arborio rice
4 ounces grassfed ground beef
4 ounces pasture raised ground pork
1 large egg, beaten
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
2 T Rosy Rhubarb Syrup or any tart red fruit syrup
3 T unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup beef broth

Cut out the core of the cabbage. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and plunge the cabbage head into the water. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, 20 minutes, ,or until the cabbage is tender and wilted.

While the cabbage is cooking, pour 3/4 cup milk into a medium saucepan and brin to a boil. Add the rice, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender.

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Grease a rectaingular baking dish. Transfer the cabbage to a draining board or colander until cool enough to handle. Ina  medium bowl, mix together the cooked rice, beef, pork, egg, onion, and the remaining 1/3 cup milk. Separate the cabbage leaves, pat dry, and trim away andy thick parts with a pairing knife. Place about 1 tablespoon of filling on the rounded bottom part of each cabbage leaf. Fold inthe sides adn roll up. Place each cabbage roll in the prepared baking dish. Drizzle the rolls with the syrup and the melted butter.

Bake for 20 minutes, then add the veef vroth. Baste the rolls with the broth every 5 minutes for the next 15 mintes, or until the rolls are browned adn caramelized. Serve hot.

Fertig, J. (2011). Heartland. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing LLC.