Winter is here and the farmers are spending a bit more time inside, catching up on bookkeeping and volunteer commitments, but the cattle remain out on pasture all year (barn? what’s a barn?). All summer we plan our grazing carefully to allow for the most ‘stockpile’ come winter, so that our cows are truly pasture-raised year-round.
What’s stockpile? When the temperature drops and the days get shorter, the pasture stops growing. What we have left in the fields at this point we call ‘stockpile’. This freeze-dried forage is a precious resource we accumulate through the summer, and graze carefully through the winter. Our goal is to extend our grazing into the winter a little bit longer every year. This forage, although it may look dead and dry, is more nutrient-dense than most hay, and we don’t have to burn any fossil fuels to harvest it or feed it. Unlike hay, the cattle harvest the stockpile all by themselves – all we have to do is help them ration it in the most frugal and efficient way possible. Using electric fences we portion out their meals daily for maximum nutrition and pasture health, and let the animals take care of the rest. Even when all the stockpile is hidden under snow, the cows find it – it’s their job – they’re experts!
What happens when the stockpile runs out? Every year we stockpile graze a little longer, but eventually we have to start up the tractor and feed some hay. We buy beautiful organic hay from a small family farm on the other side of the river, and the cows, pigs, chickens, and pastures all love it. The pastures??? That’s right, when we feed our hay we aren’t just thinking of it as cow feed, but soil food as well. Each year we carefully choose where to feed out the bales based on what pastures could use a little extra organic matter. We then place all the bales at once (this means way less tractor time and diesel then feeding every day!), and then portion out the cows’ daily ration with the same portable electric fencing we use for grazing. Often ranchers use hay feeders or troughs and feed in the same place every day so as not to ‘waste’ hay, but we don’t see it this way at all. ‘Bale grazing’ spreads the manure and trampling hooves evenly over the pasture, and the ‘waste’ that they don’t eat gets stomped into the ground, creating food and habitat for next spring’s diverse soil biology. It’s a win-win!
Don’t your animals get cold!? Well, yes, it’s winter, but the deer and the magpies are outside too and it doesn’t seem to bother them… This is where breed selection becomes very important. So many of our domesticated animals have been bred for climate-controlled environments inside of barns. These animals won’t do well on pasture year-round. When we purchase livestock for the farm, one of the main factors we are considering is winter hardiness. We want small, low-input cattle that know how to find their groceries under the snow, pigs that have enough fur and fat to keep them warm, and laying hens that don’t require artificial light or heat to keep laying beautiful eggs all winter long.
And what about the farmers? Not gunna lie, we kinda wish we got to spend all winter out in the pasture too, but alas, there’s office work to do! Aubyn has been busy catching up on a year’s worth of bookkeeping (oops!), and Tristan has been in non-stop meetings for the various agricultural society boards he sits on. He’s travelled to Vancouver twice for strategic planning sessions (the Certified Organic Association of BC, and the new Small-Scale Meat Producers Association), and he has also been working on the strategic plan for the local organization he chairs, the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society. He was also invited to participate in the five-year review of the Canadian Organic Standards for livestock, which involves conference calls with organic producers and experts from all over the country. This has been an interesting peek into the process by which our organic standards are created and updated, and it feels important to have a voice, especially when it comes to increasing animal welfare standards. Yes, winter is ‘office season’ for the farmers, but at least we have a cozy fire, abundant bone broth, and a sweet baby to keep us warm.