Farm Diary – wintering cows and Joel Salatin

It is about time I wrote up the things that are going on here. There are a couple of questions that would help focus my thoughts:

  1. What farm questions have been on my mind?
  2. How has the farm moved forward?

I’ll give it a go today and see if there’s enough material to make this a regular post.

Questions

The biggest thing on my mind is what do I do with the cows in winter time? There are two main choices: keep them indoors or keep them outside. I’ve been heading down the outside path, but I’m having doubts now. This could be an expensive issue. The standard thing to do here is to spend a lot of money, maybe 100k Euros or more, on a modern barn with metal pens and all mod cons. I know you can winter cows outside and I don’t want to spend that much money.

 

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Outside means you don’t need a barn, you feed stockpiled forage or winter annuals (like kale) and has risks with soil pugging where heavy cows compact the soil and set it back months. There is also a loss of nutrients from the manure as soil bioactivity is low in winter. This last point is open – how low is it in the Gers? How cold does the soil get? We have a winter to watch and learn before we put cows on the farm. We would also harvest or buy some hay as a fallback in case we run out of stockpiled pasture. We’d also keep the cow numbers lower in the early years until we know what the farm can support.

 

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Keeping cows inside means having a suitable barn, mixing cow dung with straw or other carbon matter and feeding hay. This means harvesting hay during the year. I thought it meant buying a fancy barn but after today’s work I think we can get away with what we have. We have a year to figure this out, but it is on my mind every day.

What are the tenets of the farm? I’ve been thinking of the house as Low-Road since it is just an old, solid stone farmhouse. There’s no fancy brickwork or modern central heating system. This has helped us choose house updates that fit with it – cheap, functional windows and minimal heating until we know we need more. Along those lines, how do we think of the farm as a whole?

I have no final answer yet but I am toying with the idea of Tidy and Cheap. Tidy, because it encompasses organization, and being clean and getting maintenance done. Cheap, because it is too easy to spend money to get where you want to go. Cheap is a challenge to do the same things for less money. Cheap also means keeping costs down so we can sell beef for less. Maybe I can come up with something better sounding than ‘cheap’.

What do I do with out ponds? I’ve got two ponds with leaks from wildlife tunnels. I’ve also got to figure out how to get water to the cows. The usual practice here is to let the cows wander to the lake, but that damages the lake itself making it wider and shallower. I’m thinking of fencing it and using cheap pumps to supply water to the nearby paddocks and maybe run something gravity-fed from the well at the top of the hill.

Farm progress

The villa tenants are moving out. They have a habit of taking things that are part of the farm – in the past it has been an old wooden ladder from the wine chai or some of the spare limestone rock that the house is made from. This time it was a metal outdoor bench. Nothing fancy, just irritating that they take these things. We’re letting it ride because they still have the keys to the villa and just getting them out is worth an old bench. At the moment the villa is pretty much empty awaiting Michael and Munson’s imminent return.

 

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It is school vacation so we spent plenty of time with the kids. Jean drove to the 31 to drop off Ruby, Lucy’s sleepover guest. I walked the paddocks with Minty and did some bike riding with Mint and Otto. Not only did this entertain the kids, it moved the farm forward. I was looking out for potential paddock boundaries by trying to figure out what were the areas that had a lot in common. For example, I could make a paddock out of the top of the main hill, and more out of the hill sides and a couple for the two stream catchment areas. Also, if I had to bet money as to which kid was most likely to take over the farm I would bet it on Minty. I don’t know why.

I’ve been rereading Joel Salatin’s Salad Bar Beef. It was one of the first farm books I read and it gave me a broad overview in a hurry. In the year since I’ve read it I have started to dismiss a bunch of his ideas. I’ve seen a couple of folk point out that Salatin doesn’t go far enough in what he does and I caught on to that feeling. But in thinking about the pond problem I reopened his book and it is so good to read, so much better than I had given him credit for. He’s a good writer, he gets to the point and he explains why. His overall system fits together. I do find him a little too enthusiastic and dismissive of others but he’s got a calling and lives it. His farm is run Cheap too and so his solutions may work well for us. On second reading I am totally impressed with his book. I guess I understand a lot more of what he’s saying now I’ve spent a year examining various farms. He’s also great at dismembering chickens:

 

 

The part of the book that most interested me today was the cow wintering chapter. He runs a system with an open-sided post-barn to store hay and sheds either side to run feed gates. He uses wood chips, sawdust and hay to provide the carbon for his manure. There are lounging areas under cover for the cows to hang out in but they also have the choice to wander in the open in a penned area. It is a simple and cheap system.

I walked around the barns with my Bosch laser measuring device figuring out sizes if we ran a system like his. It turns out that we have plenty of space just in the closed barns around the corral, and the hay store we have sits right next to them and could work with the system. The curious thing is that we’d not use the cow part of the existing cowshed – it is too partitioned and rigged for an old system – and we’d not convert the big modern wine barn. And we don’t have to use the crappy old sheds with the holes in the roof, like the one below.

 

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I’m also toying with the idea of running winter forage near the barns and letting the cows graze the forage for a couple of hours a day before returning to the warmth of the sheds. They’d get some green feed while still capturing most of the manure for compost. Maybe that’s a refinement for later years.

3 thoughts on “Farm Diary – wintering cows and Joel Salatin

  1. bizzyella says:

    Wow. Apart from the mud, it looks idyllic. Your kids must be loving it.

    So you have cows? All I know about cows and farming is what I have read in Edward Behr’s magazine, “The Art of Eating,” and Michael Pollan’s books. I see a steep learning curve ahead.

    This will be an interesting ride. Thanks for all the posts.

  2. bc says:

    @bizzyella – no cows yet, those belong to one of the locataires. They’re leaving imminently. There’s not enough forage to get cows before spring. The mud is where those cows have not had adequate straw for bedding. That locataire is a little slack in that department.

    I did farm sows and sheep after high school but that was a way ago. I need to do a ‘disaster area farm’ post to show some of the work we have ahead of us.

    @deb – I think he is that guy, it has been a while since I saw that movie. In a similar vein did you see King Corn?

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