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Archive for March, 2013

First calves

Whitey's calf first day of Spring

As another farmer-blogger put it recently, if you haven’t seen me here much, it’s because I’m busy beyond belief, spending most of my free hours running as fast as I can to stay ahead of Spring.  Indiana Jones racing madly down the cave tunnel just a hair’s breadth ahead of the rolling stone ball – that’s kind of what it feels like.

No sooner had I pulled taps and stacked sap buckets, then the calves started coming.  Yes, I got the cow herd moved to a dormant grass paddock first, as I had outlined in my transition plan.  Thank goodness!  And so far, there are three healthy bull calves scampering around their moms and aunts, lending a definite air of Spring freshness to the farm.

Arrivals began the day before St. Patrick’s Day.  Counting back on a gestation calendar, that means these three cows were bred in early June.  That was long before I arrived on the scene, and who knows what condition they were in – obviously good enough to cycle and conceive.  The great mystery is how Bruce the (nearly) infertile bull and his unknown-aged son out of god knows which cow, were able to breed more than three cows in this motley herd.

I say more than three, because there at least two others “bagging up” and showing other signs of impending parturition.

I should have gotten the vet out to preg check them in the fall.  Next year I definitely will, but I didn’t really count on too much fertility going on with this bunch this year, between the poor condition of both the cows and bulls when I found them, and the extreme heat.  I’d separated them into two herds as soon as I turned them out on my pastures, to allow the girls to recondition, but  June and July breeding activity was not in my control.  (I will aim to breed later, for calving on green, growing grass.)  But it must have happened, because I got calves.

No complaints here, though.  All three births were unassisted, wee-hour events in fairly good weather on good clean pasture.  All three moms are taking good care of their kids.  There’s some udder conformation issues with one, and a late-gestation prolapse occurred with another, so I am not sure if all of the new momma’s are keepers.  We’ll let them raise their calves and see how they do.  But these three boy calves represent a marketable inventory of grass-fed beef in 2015, if I’m able to raise them to adulthood in good health and with steady growth.

After many years of planning, learning, and waiting, we’re in the cattle business, raising a calf crop, at last.

First snow, first hay

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Winter feeding paddock yearlings

Yet another first for me this year on the farm:  transitioning from winter to spring.

While I’m thankful for the short and mercifully mild winters here in south-central Kentucky, it does keep a beginning grazier on her toes.  Seems like we just moved the cows and yearlings to their winter feeding paddocks and now, it’s time to build a strategy for getting them transitioned back to rotational grazing, in concert with what will soon be growing grass.

The trick, as I see it, will be holding them in hay-munching mode long enough to let the pastures get a good start, all the while trying to avoid undue damage to the soil where they’re parked.  Just where to put them, and when, to accomplish this is what I’m bending my brain around this week.

The five youngsters pictured above are not really a huge problem where they are, and they’ll probably stay in their fenced acre or get rotated onto the short stockpile around their sacrifice paddock in increments, until it’s time to join them up with the big girls and move the entire bunch onto fresh tall grass.  They are lightweight and by feeding out their hay in various spots, I’ve been able to conserve the turf in their paddock pretty well.  It lies underneath a layer of trampled hay, which adds carbon and will virtually melt into the surface once the temps rise and microbial activity begins; but most importantly, it is not altogether mud.  A little compacted, lightly pugged in places, and definitely in need of tillage and seeding renovation, but in reasonable shape.

Winter feeding paddock

The cow paddock, however, has had enough impact, since they are so much heavier and there are more of them.  After these past few days of moisture I hate to walk through it and I can’t bring myself to take pictures of it, although as cattle feeding areas go around here, it’s only a bit soggy.  It has layers of leftover hay from feeding piles distributed very evenly all around, and the very highest sections afforded fairly dry conditions  up until this last bit of precip, but now it’s all wet all over, and with a couple of the ladies due to calve soon, I want them up on terra firma.

So yesterday I dropped the partition line across their enclosure, letting them back into the section where I’d first fed them back in November, out of the round bale feeders.  Roped off and left alone, the soil there had finally drained and dried out pretty well, and enough grass was still left around the perimeter that the girls ran around clipping off the remnants like they hadn’t been fed in three days, ignoring the piles of hay I’d already tossed down.  Good hay just can’t hold a candle to green grass, no matter how short it is, for a cow.

That rested acre will give them some clean dry ground for a few days, in case miss betsy decides to calve, and buy me some time to get the 5-acre First Pasture set back up for a quick, minimal-impact rotation through the month of March.   There’s a short stockpile left on it that they will enjoy very much and I’ll keep feeding hay and move them on before they have a chance to graze it too close or pile on too much manure.  Then I expect the grass will have broken dormancy by the time April is upon us, and I’ll have to figure out a holding pattern for the herd until forage growth is well above the post-emergence stage.  Nothing sets a sward back faster than being bitten too soon, and I don’t want to get ahead of the grass growth in the sequence of rotation.  Better to wait and feed hay a few more weeks, and let the forage bank build.

So the little herd may end up back in their winter feeding paddock for the first part of April, as it will have drained and dried by then and can wait another few weeks for my Rotavator to get here for the renovation festivities.  I haven’t decided what sort of crop or forage mix to plant there; still strategizing best use of that heavily fertilized couple of acres.  It’ll get lightly tilled (not plowed), worked into a seedbed and be ready to grow forage annuals or perhaps a patch of oats, millet, or even feed corn.  The Big Experiment continues.

I’d love to hear how other grass farmers transition their livestock from winter feeding (or grazing, if you’re doing really well) to spring pastures.  Despite the wintry look of this morning’s snow-covered dormant pastures, green grass is on the way, and I am planning for it.

Hay pile framing snow pasture

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