Despite the warm spell at the end of summer and the rains that followed, we have not seen the flush of grass I was expecting. What grows in fall is neither as lush, as vigorous, nor as nutritious. It’s water-logged; full of empty calories. The result is that the cows tear through it much quicker than they did in spring. The “four-square field” has become the “two-square field”, for example, and even doubled in size the pens cannot hold the herd for a full day.
So, rather than our routine of moving the cows in the afternoon once per day, we are moving them at all sorts of hours, using once-perfectly-adequate pens as holding pens, trying to keep them off the next pasture as long as possible so that something will hold them till morning.
I woke up at midnight to their bawling a couple of weeks ago. The pen I’d put them in — a pen already a third again larger than its spring size — had been demolished in a handful of hours. I had to drop the line dividing them from their next pen, combining the two into a single super-pen. It was a balmy, moony night, however, with mist crawling along in the trees and sliding around the sky. It was magical.
The evil twin of this experience is waking up at 3 AM to make an entire pen in the rain in the cold dark. I spend some nights sleepless on account of anticipating just such an event.
To give the pastures a break, we spent all of a week moving the herd through our grain fields. I wish I could say I’d spent most of that time on a horse with a blanket rolled up behind me, trotting through the hills squinting at the sunset. In fact, the time is spent tying and untying knots, gathering, carrying, and occasionally kicking piles of stakes, tangling and untangling lines, and turning power off and on and off and again. It was a good use of the grain fields, though, and a lot of fun to see the cows right smack in the middle of the farm. They weren’t alone there, either — The cows met the pigs for the first time out in the oats.
Close Encounters of the Therd Kind
The grain is harvested in August or so, leaving behind it an understory of crimson clover, which was sown at the same time. The clover surges once it sees the light, and creates a beautiful contrast of lush green to the standing gold straw.
Textbook example of undersown clover coming up after the grain’s been harvested.
By mid-September, the clover is ready for grazing, and the cows come in and happily oblige, devouring every trace of it as well as gobbling up any missed grain and trampling the straw to make a perfect mulch.
A landscape crew couldn’t have done it better.
The clover has enough time to bounce back and make a nice cover for winter, thereby protecting the soil, preventing minerals from leaching out, and fixing nitrogen. It’s a sweet system.
That said, the cows spent an awful little time in some of those pens. Half-days. And, because these are irregular areas of the farm for the animals, we had no headlines to work off of — we had to make each pen from scratch: all four sides, a powerline run out to it, and a long assemblage of hoses leading to the trough from the nearest water source. The hoses came from everywhere — I turned into a hose-goblin, the rest of the farm wondering where they’d all gotten off to.
A windy, sopping wet day in the far pastures. Endless cow moves through the swamps and woods of the furthest extension of the land. This is the place where the water often comes over the top of my muck boots, where the mud sucks at my feet and the wet grass greedily sucks the power out of the lines. Did I mention it was sopping wet? You may need to force yourself to get out and get something done in weather like this, but usually you balance it with a majority of greenhouse or barn work. But not on cow-duty. The cows are like giant babies, udder dependents compelling you to meet their needs NOW.
The endless grain field rotations were the grand finale of the season. In a month, the cows will be back in the barn. And the grand finale of the grand finale was the long move we did on the last afternoon, from the furthest grain field on the far south end of the farm back to the main pastures. It wasn’t a move from one pen to the next, but a migration from one field to a field far, far away, which required every line and stake we had from every part of the farm to make a lane about a half-mile long (Elana would point out here that I’m exaggerating, which of course totally misses the point, so stay with me). It took a long time to make this lane and the huge pen that they’d be moving into. But, at the end of the day, we moved them, and boy, did they mooove! They started slowly, not sure about where they were going, nibbling some grass here and there in the lane, wondering if this was what they were supposed to do. The destination was neither routine nor obvious. So, we whipped ‘em into a frenzy (exaggerating again, but stick with me), chyaw!ing them from the back to get them moving clearly in the direction we wanted them to go, straight down that lane.
Thing is, that lane was not straight. It made at least two right angles, which I’d tried my best to soften, because cows do not like right angles, and if the herd was going to blow out the side of the lane, it was going to be at one of those elbows. This was particularly concerning because we had no bluff line up in this part of the farm — all the regular pastures have a big fence around them strung with fat white ribbons that look like giant bands of electric tape. Not here. Here, if they missed a turn, they’d end up in the pumpkins, or on the road, or in the farm proper dining on broccoli and beans.
Well, once the herd got moving, like I said, they moved. They tumbled forward leaping and kicking and for a minute it felt like we’d started a stampede. Then a bunch of them tried to squish into the lane at the first corner and somebody grazed an inside stake and the stake went down and took a section of line down with it. In the blink of an eye five calves were out, running headlong down the outside of the lane straight for the road.
But! Just when all seemed lost, a lone warrior rose to challenge the five harbingers of the apocowlypse.
Jordan, placed strategically at the turn in the lane before the road, spotted them not a moment too soon. Now, Jordan hasn’t much experience with cows (even less than I), but he played football, which means he knows enough about putting pressure on your opposition, anticipating their moves to head them off or push them in the direction you need them to go. He saw them coming down the outside of the line at the last minute and froze for just a split second before leaning forward with his shoulders braced, dropping into that ready-for-action half-crouch. He feinted this way, than that way, keeping them from ducking around him, keeping them up against the line, and I came up behind to pressure them from the back. We needed to pinch them from the two bottom points of an imaginary shifting triangle to force them in the direction of the top point, over the line back into the lane. Once he saw they weren’t going backward, Jordan pushed against them hard, and — first two, then another, then the last two — sprung over the line, ably demonstrating their newly mastered fence-transcending skills (which, of course, will come back to bite us in the ass).
I ran up, breathless. Jordan was wide-eyed and lit up, shifting from foot to foot. We gave each other high fives, exhilarated.
And, friends, I wish I could say that was a wrap. In fact, in the middle of composing this post yesterday, I was called upon to rescue the herd from a flooded-out pasture, then compelled to spend half the day making half-day pens. Alas, the work is never done. At least, not till November, when we put them in cryogenic freeze for five months. I wish. In fact, I suspect, by the end of winter, you will read a post titled “Chasing Bales,” which will be all about the endless unfurling of silage in the clammy cold of the mucky barn.