Grass farming

So, after a long hiatus, I’ve decided to reboot this blog. When doing so, it’s often hard to know where to start, so I decided to start with the question we get asked most often: Why don’t we mow our grass? … Continue reading

So, after a long hiatus, I’ve decided to reboot this blog. When doing so, it’s often hard to know where to start, so I decided to start with the question we get asked most often: Why don’t we mow our grass?

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The short answer to that question is that our “messy” “ugly” yard that makes our “farm look abandoned” is what real sustainable stewardship looks like. Because we’re not mowing our yard, we’re not spending money on grass mowing, not producing the byproducts of grass mowing, and are providing habitat for all sorts of native species.

But, honestly, the answer is more complicated than that. Yes, we are doing all of those things, but it turns out we’re also grass farmers. Our primary occupation at Innisfree is raising animals for food, and it turns out most of our animals eat grass. When I see a yard, I see a pasture, even if it’s one right up next to my house.

In a manner of speaking, we do mow our grass. We just do it sustainably with animals instead of mowers and gas. For us, the results are worth the “mess”.

DLH

Day 224 – fence row in august

2013-08-13 11.39.40The cows haven’t been in the front pasture for a while, so the “alley” between the pastures has grown up.  And we don’t mow this corner of the hay pasture on the other side of the fence because that area gets pretty muddy and torn up by the cows going in and out of the gate.

I still think it looks nice – the chicory is in full bloom, as is the Queen Anne’s lace, plus the grasses gone to seed.

 

Day 204 – moving the goats

IMG_0325We decided to go ahead and move the goats today – not that they didn’t have more green stuff to eat in the chicken yard, but that the rest of the yards are quite ready to be eaten down.

There were a lot of big, stalky weeds in the chicken yard, so it’s not as clean as I was hoping, but I’ll at least be able to get the wheelbarrow through to the compost pile and finish cleaning out the hen house.

So that made 12 days for them in the chicken yard.  Pretty incredible, I think.

Day 195 – this is more like it

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We got a break in the “hot, chance of thunderstorms” weather, so while I was at farm markets, Denny mowed, raked and baled the rest of the first cutting of hay.  We still have some smaller areas to mow and bale, but this is the “big-un” hay field.  Every year we try to come up with a better way to mow it, and it seems like every year the weather is such that we can mow according to plan for the first round, then have to just lay it all down and get it baled.

Seven hours on a tractor is not a fun time (which is why we’re always trying to find another way to do this), but it’s all mowed and baled, and that’s good.  We’ll let the bales cure for a few days, then load them up on a wagon and move them to the barn for storage.  That will take awhile because we can only move them 7 bales at a time – 5 bales on the wagon, plus 1 bale on each of the tractors.  We will be very happy when the barn is full of hay.

The grass in the areas we baled earlier is growing in wonderfully – I hope that means a good second cutting as well.  We wish we could bale the back pasture, but since that’s the main pasture the cows hang out in, it’s pretty tore up (and there are lots of rocks), and would be too rough on the equipment.  We’re working on ideas for to be able to bale it, though!

This certainly isn’t the easy way to do things, but we think it’s the better way.  By mowing the pastures, it keeps most of the weeds to a minimum, takes off the grasses the cows “don’t like” (although they love those grasses as dry hay!), and since we usually don’t mow until the grass has gone to seed, we reseed the pastures for free.  Winning all around.

Day 189 – sound of silence

This is what quiet looks like around here:

This doesn’t happen very often, maybe twice a week – that’s how often we usually move the goats!  They let us know in very loud voices when they think their pen area has been eaten down too much – that usually means that they can stay in that spot for about 2 more days.  We don’t move them until they’ve eaten everything they possibly can, even if they don’t “like” it.  It’s pretty funny to get chewed out by a goat while they have a mouthful of gone-to-seed grass in their mouth.

We’ve had an abundance of chicory this year, and the goats love it.  This is an area directly across from where they are now, and you can see how much chicory is there.

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The chicken yard is also overrun with it, so that’s where they will go next, after we fence off the fruit trees that grow there.  We don’t let them eat everything, just most!

I’m sure by tomorrow, they will be complaining about the quality of the grass, and how they’re going to fall over any minute due to starvation.

And when we move them again, everything will be eaten down to the ground, there will be goat poo for the chickens to scratch around in, and the whole area will have received a free layer of fertilizer to grow the next round of goat feed.  Our cost?  The materials (panels, goat hut) and time.  Well worth not having to use a gas lawnmower – mowers don’t fertilize!

Day 177 – baling days

177If you want it to rain, make hay.  At least that’s how it seems around here.  Denny got this field mowed and raked. Then it rained.  Next day (or was it 2 days later?) I went out with the tedder, spread out the hay, then re-raked it.  He finished raking so I could go to Troy and started baling.  About 5 rows from being finished with baling, the skies opened. It’s not fun baling wet hay, although this isn’t the first time we’ve done so – sometimes you just need to finish the job.

As they dry, we’ll keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t start molding or getting funky.  Then off to the barn they’ll go, to be stored for winter.  It’s interesting to watch the bales dry if they’ve been rained on – by watching the ends of the bales, we can see the progression of green changing to yellow/brown when dry, kind of like a bulls-eye.  We make them loose enough that they will dry all the way through to the center.

Without good grass (and hay), we don’t have good animals, so this pictures really sums up what Innisfree is about – grass farming!

 

Day 173 – how to make hay, part 2

173After mowing the grass, letting it dry, and raking it into windrows, out comes the baler.  There are round balers, like the one we have, and there are square balers – both kinds come in all sizes.  We can actually make up to almost 5 foot tall round bales, but choose to make 3.5 foot round bales – they’re easier to move around and store.  Everyone has a different set up – this is what works for us.

(A round baler like ours)

Basically, the baler is pulled behind the tractor and has tines that sweep the hay into the baler.  It rolls up to make the bale, then when the sensor goes off to tell us that it’s large enough, we start the wrapping process.  Two rolls of baling twine are on each side of the baler, then fed through to the inside of the baler, the wrapped around the hay, and cut off at the end of the process (it’s all mechanized – we just push a few buttons to start each process).  When that part is done, another button opens the back of the baler and the bale is pushed out.  Bale rolls to the ground, the back comes back into place and the process starts all over again.

And “just like that” we have winter grass for our animals.  The last step is to get it into the barn where it will be out of the elements and ready to go come winter.

The pasture, with all of the tall grass gone, is now ready to start regrowing.  We’ll let it rest for a while, then open it back up for the cows to graze.  And because we let the grasses go to seed before we mow, we’ll hopefully have an even better pasture next year.

 

Day 171 – how to make hay, part 1

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Not to be snarky, but hay starts like this – grass!  It has to be pretty tall, or (like we discovered last year) it doesn’t want to hold together very well and will not make a good bale of hay.

Now the machinery enters the picture.  We have a haybine (like a combine for corn/beans, but it cuts hay), a rake and a round baler.  The haybine is different than a lawnmower in that it cuts the grass at the bottom of the stalk, then spits it out the back in a pile, instead of chopping the grass to shreds and spreading it all over.

The next picture is after we’ve let the grass dry out, then rake it into windrows.  Turning it with the rake allows the bottom grass to dry better, and making windrows makes it easier for the baler to to its job.  The piles aren’t even because the amount of grass isn’t even.  We don’t notice that when mowing the yard, but it’s pretty apparent when raking hay into windrows.
171b

This is a rake similar to ours.

You actually can make little square balers to bale the grass at your house. http://oak-hill-homestead.blogspot.com/2007/09/hay-baling.html is just one example.

Day 166 – goat hut

166Behold Mobile Goat Hut, version 3!  Wood frame base with swivel castor wheels, PVC supports, flexible plastic “walls” and corrugated aluminum roofing.  The silver bits are tape used to seal the corners and overlaps – keep the wind from ripping anything apart!

We put cattle panel around the whole thing, both to provide some sturdiness to the flexible plastic walls (our goats like to push on things) and to enclose the other 8×8′ half of the goat mover.

They are on the first part of their yard mowing routine, and will probably be moved every few days, depending on how big of a section we enclose.  To the right you can see we’re using corral panel with cattle panel chained to the inside – if we don’t use the cattle panel, they will slip right under the corral panel and be off on adventures.

Minnie is staying with them – they are “her herd” to protect.  But since this is a smaller area, we’ll be taking her into the big pasture (after making sure the cows are out and the gate is shut) to run around and be silly.  She loves the enclosed area – she’s usually snoozing in there during the day.

This is why we don’t mow the grass – we have 5 goats who do it for us, plus they fertilize at the same time!

 

Day 159 – yards and animals

IMG_0224This is our north yard (on the right, you can see the concrete ‘railing’ of our porch steps).  To many people, this would be a hog mess of a yard and should be mowed within an inch of its life.  To us, it’s goat and chicken feed and we’re not going to mow it – the goats will.  The chickens have already been working on it, and they love it even more now that it’s gone to seed.  It’s pretty funny to watch them jump up to peck the seeds out, or snip the stalks with their beaks to knock down the grass and eat the seeds.

We don’t want to use our limited resources (gas, time, energy) to do something that the animals can do just as well, and need to do. They get more benefit out of eating the grass (and for the chickens, the little wiggly critters that live in tall grass) than we ever would by mowing it.  And there’s free fertilizer, which makes the grass grow better the next year, which give better grass for the animals, etc, etc.

Not everyone can do this with their yard – but what is one change you can make to how you manage your piece of Earth?  Maybe it’s planting native wildflowers, trees and/or ground cover instead of spreading grass seed.  Maybe you can have a couple chickens and a portable coop in the backyard to eat the grass, and all you have to do is trim the edges.  Find something that works for you and your space!