Thoughts on Winter Pastures

I do my best thinking when I’m in my pasture, or sometimes, my most relaxed thinking. Today, surrounded by winter and grey, my thoughts swirled – much like the cold air surrounding me as I thrust my hands in my pockets and walked through the pasture. Over winter, when there’s no snow on the ground, I’ve busied myself with some of the not-so-glorious parts of grass-fed farming such as clearing out some old brush and trees in my pasture so the grass will grow better underneath, and doing some other maintenance things in my pasture.

In all the grey days of winter and especially of February, I get excited when I go out and when I look at the back pasture and look on the southeastern slope of a draw, and see a little bit of grass starting to green up on one for those few days where it’s been 55 degrees. And then, I hear there’s supposed to be snow this week. What’s snow? “Snow’s just some white manure,” an old farm boy told me.

I chuckle when I think of this farmer – he was an older fella who lived on his own, took care of himself, rendered his own tallow, raised his own cattle and sheep. Raised a family on forty acres – which is hard to do anymore. But he did those basic fundamental things well. One could visit his farm and ask, where did that lard come from? Well, from his own pig. Where did that pig come from? From following the cattle out there in the lot…. His hogs were raised right. He always said, “hogs never tasted right after they were moved to concrete pads and fed all the funny food they’re raised on in those confinement operations.” This guy was a treasure trove of little funny farming analogies. And now wonder – he saw a lot of springs, a lot of winters, a lot of calves, lambs, and piglets born. He was kind of a contrary farmer, I suppose.

But that’s not an original term. Gene Logsdon, the late author of many books, called himself the “contrary farmer” first – and he’s a hero of mine. He wrote a lot. He sold books and that supplemented income so he could raise good food on 35-40 acres in Sandusky, Ohio. He was one of my heroes, including Wendell Berry – from Kentucky, a man who wrote many very deep and meaningful books about all that was lost when he went to the big agriculture – mainly, our little communities, and our community kinship. When he moved to the country, his daughter said that they were taught by their neighbors – those little old ladies and men who still kept the tried and true traditions alive and shared them willingly with those “new” city farmers that came out.

He said, “I’m not sure if all my kids appreciated all my efforts to be back on the farm, but hopefully someday they’ll look back and say, ‘Pop was right, and by golly, there was a reason and a method to his madness.’ I hope they remember those little treasure troves, even though they’d be grudging when we got done helping with chores, cleaning pastures, and gathering hay and watering the cattle, when it wasn’t real pleasant out in the cold.” Love that guy and all he said and did…

One of my goals as a farmer was not to have to feed hay during the long winter months. To date, I’ve got it down to feeding hay about ten weeks out of the year. The average farmer who raises cattle, in the last 25 years, is feeding hay about 4-5 months a year. Didn’t matter that grass was part of it. It’s on account of too many animals, too few acres – and no grass to carry over. In my herd, I fed my first bale of hay the 16th of December this year, and I hope to be done feeding by end of February or when the grass starts greening up in early March.

Speaking of that, I have some friends up north of me who are full-time farmers, raising pastured chickens and beef. They try to breed their cattle short and deep, ones that really do well and flourish off good grass – grass that carries them through the winter. Why? Because cows can do a lot with that stored hay that stands out in the field. And, if it’s standing out in the field and they’re grazing it, the farmer doesn’t have to bale it, feed it to the cows, or move their manure – those jobs belong to the herd. That’s my friends’ goal, and they’re doing real well. These friends of mine thought that they would only have to feed hay 3-4 weeks this winter – in the middle of the Midwest – unheard of in these modern times. It may not look glorious, and they may not be using the biggest machinery, but they’re getting the right job done in the right way.

These boys were telling me that their grandfather was amazed that they were moving cattle from one little farm to another to graze more grass. They loaded those cattle with a single poly wire – and sure enough, the cattle get on the truck, loaded up without having to use corrals or a whole lot of cowboy stuff. How does that happen? The cows were calm. The cows also knew that they were being moved to good grass, new grass, even if it was “brown or dead” grass, dead grass has a lot of stored nutrition in it, and those cows were doing the harvesting – and the farmers didn’t have to do it with machines.

Is it a pain – all this work to do the grass-fed and free-range thing with my herds? It might be more work, but as a matter of fact, I enjoy the daily walks out in the pasture, moving those paddocks, and making sure those cattle are well-fed. And I know that below that frozen soil surface is a micro biome of organisms that are working hard – tons and tons of work being done by the little workers that never get credited much – unless you’re a “contrary farmer.” But by golly, we’re catching on. More and more people moving out to the farms, and putting a few chickens in their backyard and continuing a movement back to the land. Their acreage may be small, but a bunch of good farmers doing well with small parcels of land can produce more quality food than big tractors, plowing up thousands of acres of annual crops, and leaving that ground barren.

But “contrary farmers” don’t leave their ground barren. Even some of the guys in the mega-farms are getting back to these techniques, such as planting cover crops of rye grass over their corn. For one corn farmer, when that green seed came up and flourished, it helped feed his cattle and livestock through the winter. Believe me, he knew and I know too that there was more nutrient density and life in that grass than in the hay stored in the barn.

My adopted grandpa was another of my agricultural heroes. He shared lots of wisdom of what they did back in the day when they didn’t have all the fertilizers, and all the implements. But they did smart and frugal things like pulling manure from around the barn, making sure it was put back down into the cropland into the pastures. They gleaned their crops, and they would harvest their corn out of the fields with their old machines, and left some of it for the hogs and the cattle to bring that back up. A little bit of starch was a decent complement to their basic diet of forage.

As the wind blows across my grey pasture and starts to beckon spring to life, I’m excited. I’m looking forward to what happens when that grass pops. I’m looking forward to planting some seed so when that grass comes up, I’ve got good clover coming with it. Why? Because, that clover, it fixes the nitrogen, frees up the fertilizer from the air. Like they said, “a snow that is late in the year right before it greens up, that’s white manure, boys, good nitrogen.” Good nitrogen that I didn’t have to buy or spray from a tank – just provided by the Good Lord, and brought to us trapped in snowflakes that have fallen through the atmosphere. As they melt, they put that nitrogen put back in the soil. There’s a cycle of things, and if you look at the cycle that the good Lord put in front of us, by golly, those things worked, and they worked well.

It takes creativity, ingenuity, and the power of observation to see it, but when you do see it, especially in the pasture, you have to marvel. I do. And as I’m learning from elders, those farmers that stayed “contrary” their whole lives, who didn’t get big and get out, who stayed small and succeeded. Those guys are my heroes and I hope they’re some of your heroes too. So for the memory of Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, and others, I’m much appreciative. Those are the little things that I think of when I look out on the pasture in the middle of winter. It may not be the prettiest thing to some, but if you know what you’re looking for, it’s a gorgeous as the green grass and sward in the spring.

– Dr. Michael