The cattle watched as I trudged through 6 inches of snow into their pasture. Husband Bruce and I had driven the pickup truck into the field next to Audubon headquarters near Concord to check on the 40 head of cattle that have been there for three weeks. Yes, this is November when most traditionally-fed cows are eating hay. To a farmer like me, who doesn't raise hay, they might as well be eating money. That's why this herd is dining on affordable, wholesome and tasty “stockpiled forage.”
We lease these twenty acres from St.Paul’s School and this year let the grass grow tall and green all summer - the very definition of stockpiled forage.
To maximize utilization of this forage, we practice "rotational grazing." We divide the pasture into six paddocks of about 3 acres each. The herd spends nearly a week grazing in each paddock before we open up a new paddock for them. This system mimics the grazing patterns of wild buffalo when they roamed the great plains. They would eat down the grass from one area, then move on to the next, returning weeks later after the grass grew back. Buffalo had no one to feed them hay, they had to find grass under the snow. They did, and they thrived.
While my shaggy Highland cattle may look like buffalo, they aren't. They are spoiled cows who expect hay served to them twice a day. Was I asking too much for them to rely on their foraging instincts and dig down through the snow?
Apparently not. As I watched, Mocha hoofed the snow aside like a pro and came up with bright green strands of deliciousness. Others followed her lead.
I don't know why, but a hard freeze sweetens grass, making it even tastier. At least that's what my cows tell me.
Of course, water supplies can also freeze. Fortunately, with all the recent rain, there are pools of water in the field. The cows have been drinking from these pools and haven't touched their water trough in days. The trough is fed by three tanks that should collectively hold 6,000 gallons of water. But the cattle opened the valve on one tank, emptying it. Another tank drained out when the float valve broke (it's always something!), so we are down to one 1,300-gallon tank. Given all the rain we've had, it should last until we bring them home.
The cattle have food and water, but what about heat? Won't they freeze? Nope, the amazing cow has perfected natural insulation. Her winter coat insulates her, plus it contains nature's own “hair product”...oily lanolin, which makes it water-proof. When snow piles up, unmelted, on a cow's back, that's proof her insulation is working. Just like snow on the roof of a well-insulated house, it will accumulate and eventually slide off. A snow-covered cow is a warm cow. As long as they have protection from bitter wind, cows do just fine in the winter.
There are two more paddocks of stockpiled grass at the Audubon field, which should keep them fed until early December unless their water supply freezes. Then we'd have to bring them back to the farm to dine on costly hay. But for now, they are happy wandering and foraging...maybe dreaming of their thrifty humpbacked cousins out West.