October 13, 2012 Fall has arrived. We’re wrapping up late summer projects and thinking about when the grazing season will end. When will it end? We don’t actually know. One neighbor says the region is in for a rough winter and another says it’s going to be a piece of cake! Well, which is it? Since we can’t know in advance we have to plan for a short grazing season and a long winter when putting up enough hay for all the animals. Some of our stored hay came from our property and the rest is coming from a nearby farm. A safe bet in our area is to plan on feeding hay for at least 120 days – December 15th - April 15th. Last year we grazed almost the entire winter! This was good and bad as the sheep grazed nutritious forage and were simultaneously working on improving the pastures but their hooves became soggy and soft as the wet, warm winter had them standing in water-logged soil. We routinely brought the flock into the barn to check their hooves for excessive growth and to trim feet that had started to delaminate due to the moisture. By trimming regularly we were able to head off potentially damaging hoof rot and maintain normally shaped hooves. Hoof health is critical as it impacts the overall health of the animal.
This year we don’t expect to be able to graze as much so we’ll need more hay than last winter. Early on we decided not to purchase expensive farm equipment such as tractors and haying equipment. In addition to representing large outlays of cash, farm implements are difficult and expensive to maintain and repair and they wouldn’t get used on our farm all that much. Having a startup flock of small livestock, such as sheep, allows us to work with relatively small quantities of feed and water. If we were focusing on raising cattle we would probably think twice about operating
without a tractor. Having to move 800 lb bales through the snow on a regular basis encourages one to buy a tractor with a spear on the front end. Haying our own property means we need to hire a local farmer who owns and maintains haying equipment. On the other hand, if we buy in hay we need to coordinate a truck to haul the hay from one farm to another. Each scenario has it’s own ups and downs. Most farmers have their hands full haying for their own animals so if one is dependent on another farmer to do their haying it can be left standing well past its prime. Each day the grasses continue to grow after the optimal harvesting time it becomes increasingly lignified, or woody, and the relative feed value drops. When buying hay from other sources we have to be careful to buy high-quality hay and not just whatever is easily accessible. In a drought year this can prove to be particularly tricky. One tool we have to ensure that we are getting good hay is to take a sample with a special coring tool from a series of bales and send it to a testing lab where the contents are analyzed. The report shows up in our email and tells us how much protein and various types of fiber and minerals are in the sample. Since our lambs are growing and the ewes are now bred they need a fairly high protein and digestible fiber diet. We have found that many farmers never test their hay so they don’t really know what they are feeding or selling to others. We take it upon ourselves to test their hay as we must know what we are buying before it arrives on the farm. Once a farmer finds a good hay source they try to stick with it for obvious reasons. In addition to finding a good source of hay we have to anticipate how much we will need for the winter. Depending on the type of livestock, how many head and where the animals are in their lifecycle, a farmer can calculate the approximate amount of hay that will be used. Currently our flock of sheep is very small, consisting of 40 ewes and ewe lambs, two rams plus we’re expecting about 30 lambs in 5-6 weeks – just in time for Thanksgiving. Then, for hay calculation purposes, we add in 4 Highland cattle. The 2 adult cattle represent 4 sheep each and the little heifers are the equivalent of 2-3 sheep per head. We figure if we have approximately 20-25 tons of hay we will be in good shape, including waste. As our flock grows we will lean more towards buying in hay for several reasons. This will allow us to focus on ‘stockpiling’ hay during the growing season rather than cutting, drying and baling it. Stockpiling simply means leaving the hay standing and not grazing it after mid-summer. Sheep are known for their ability to dig several inches through the snow to access forage that was left standing. Although this growth has a lower relative feed value than hay that was cut at its peak of nutrition, the cool season grasses, of which we have many on our acreage, remain valuable as forage throughout the winter.
When we buy hay for our animals we are also essentially purchasing seed and nutrients that will be imported on to our acreage. This is a very important aspect of developing our farm soils and elevating the overall health of the farm. Farms that consistently cut and sell hay are continuously shipping their nutrients off of the land, potentially depleting the soil year after year. The nutrients that get shipped away have to be replaced on a regular basis in order to avoid ‘bankrupting’ the farm on the level of soil, forage and ultimately animal health. These are some of the aspects of hay/forage, whether it’s purchased or self-produced, that are invisible to the beginning farmer. The sooner we understand the full nutrient cycle on the farm the better off our pastures and animals will be for the coming years. On a final note, we are wrapping up our chicken growing season for 2012. Walter has worked hard to grow, process and freeze chickens so that we will have them available to our customers through much of the winter. In anticipation of Thanksgiving, which is just around the corner, he raised a batch of “Thanksgiving Chickens”, which weigh between 4-6.5 lbs. Last year we roasted two Thanksgiving Chickens for our dinner with friends who came out from Minnesota. The chickens were a welcome and tasty addition to our otherwise traditional menu.
If you are interested in ordering some large chickens let us know via email or at one of the farmers markets and we will set them aside for you. Happy Fall! Shannon & Walter
S HANNON B RO OK FARM / 2 ' ! . ) # s 0! 3 4 5 2 % 2 ! ) 3 % $ s , / # ! ,) # ) / 5 3
shannon@ShannonBrookFarm.com 2566 Jennings Road, Watkins Glen, NY www.ShannonBrookFarm.com