Monday, 12 December 2011

...'til the cows came home

So Michelle and I brought our cattle herd home the other day! It is a small herd but, to us, it feels like a big deal. I mean, Michelle grew up on a cattle ranch. I didn't, but have spent a fair bit of time acquainting myself with cattle over the years. And I like 'em! My uncle had cattle; and I have worked as a farmhand on various ranches, including Michelle's folks' these past couple of years. Regardless, raising cattle makes sense to us, we are passionate about it, and is an overall good fit for our farm and the land.

We picked out 20 bred cows from Fraser's (Michelle's dad) herd. They are Angus, Simmental, Charolais crosses and range in ages from 3 to 10 years old. Diversity is strength, no? We were appreciative and fortunate to have the 30 years of knowledge and experience Fraser contributed to the selection process. The bulk of the selection criteria was to pick out cows that would likely be calving later in the spring (May-June), which will be both easier on the animals as well as us. Afterall, we don't have a much in the way of barns and such, which could serve to house animals in need of assistance, especially in the very cold, winter months. By the time our cows calve, the spring will be well under way and temperatures much more conducive to less stress. This is why most other animal species have their babies around that time of year, including deer, elk and moose. It is obvious how it is much easier on everyone when it's not -30C with a howling north wind! 

Bale grazing and the Holistic Management Philosophy

After quite a bit of research and consultation, we decided to try bale grazing our cattle through the winter months. In fact we had to decide on this months ago, as there was much preparation to be done before the cold set in. Rather than feeding hay bales to the cattle as they need them in a controlled feeder at a single location, we set up our hay bales out in a pasture in a grid, spaced out 30 or so feet apart. Our 20 cows will eat about 2 round bales every 3 days, so we give them access to 4 at a time, which lasts them nearly a week. They are prevented from accessing the other bales by way of a temporary electric wire. 

Bale grazing is done for several reasons that really resonate with us.  Firstly, beyond the initial bale setup, we don't need to use a tractor throughout the winter. So we don't burn fuel and therefore don't need to maintain our winter pasture road. Secondly, the leftover (residual) hay from the bales that were fed to the cows remains on the land, breaks down over time, along with the manure, and provides a huge amount of beneficial organic matter to the pasture. The before and after results are staggering as seen here. The nutrient release from the added biomass and manure will continue to show such results for many years into the future. Thirdly, because the feeding location of the herd is changing so often, manure distribution on the pasture is nicely spread out. So we won't need to collect and then spread that manure around, saving more fuel, labour and so on, important resources when we need to watch our costs and focus on a diversity of other things happening on the farm during the summer months. We aren't taking this approach because it is easier than other methods, though it surely is. It just makes sense on so many levels. Michelle and I have been noticing that more and more cattle ranchers are adopting this approach, which is nice to see.         

Bale grazing is a component of a long established philosophy called holistic farm management, which we are very interested in further exploring. It is about working toward and finding a sacred balance between self, land and social relations. It is nice to start consciously thinking about the needs of the land, how we relate to it, how to better care for and enhance it alongside what our economic and social needs and realities are. Bale grazing and the introduction of cattle to our farm is no doubt working towards enhancing our landbase as well as our lives more generally. 

I often pause and think about the herd of 90 million buffalo that once roamed these Prairies. They were part of a sacred balance between animals, land and the people that once depended on them, who therefore took measures to ensure their continuance. It is a tragedy that the buffalo were exterminated. We are also aware of the countless injustices colonizers doled out to the Indigenous people here, a legacy that sadly continues. That is another story for another blog post. For us, we believe cattle, when raised in a natural manner, are contributing to the restoration of that sacred balance that was once here on the prairies and are looking forward to the benefits they will bring to the land, to us and the people who support our farm. 

As always, feel free to get in touch, start a dialogue, ask questions. 

Have a great holiday season and happy new year! 

Troy and Michelle
A few of our cattle grazing at the remains of hay bales.
This is day 5 of 6, so they move onto fresh bales the next day. 

A cross section of our herd genetics: from left, Angus/Charolais,
Charolais/Simmental, Red Angus, Charolais, Black Angus. 

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