(Published February 2013)
My experience wintering cattle in the mountains of Virginia has mostly been painful. Historically it has included mud, ungainly hay rings, stupid tractors that won’t start, vast amounts of hay, bitter cold, mud, snow, ice, rain, and pure drudgery. Not to mention bad temper and foul language. The corrals have the consistency of a chocolate milkshake and the gateways are bottomless bogs. When I still worked an off-farm job feeding was done early in the mornings in the dark, and the daily tractor rides were just brutal at times.
By February you were just worn out with it and desperately wondered if spring would ever come, and if you could somehow survive until then.
And I had it easier than most. As a rotational grazier the feeding season generally didn’t start for me until the final, bleak weeks of January while most of my neighbors started in November. Or October. But it was tough enough that I envied the guys with cab tractors and heaters, though I knew such equipment was well beyond my means and contrary to my true inclinations.
Tractors don’t particularly appeal to me, especially the part where you have to pay for them and maintain them. Writing checks for tractors and equipment makes me sick and working on them makes me sicker. Nor do I enjoy operating them. This aversion probably stems from spending too many hours in my youth driving them in circles around hot, dusty hayfields.
Therefore my goal for the last few years has been to accomplish year-round grazing and thus the elimination of tractors and hay. The work of Jim Gerrish has had considerable influence on setting this goal. So far, however, my failure at this has been distinct and profound, due to lack of skill, lack of rainfall at the proper times, and a propensity to buy more cattle when opportunity arises. But I’m failing a little less each year and feel confident of achieving the goal before long. (Bale grazing has eliminated the pain from wintering cattle. It’s a game-changer. A lifechanger).
Until I reach the goal of year-round grazing, bale grazing has made winter feeding much more efficient, cheaper, and enjoyable. I had read articles about bale grazing by Mr. Steve Kenyon, a man I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting but whose hand I’d certainly like to shake, but really hadn’t embraced the concept the way I should have.
What compelled me to give it a try was the lack of a tractor at a remote rental farm in the next county. I had hay (purchased hay, by the way) in the barn but no tractor for feeding it out, and a group of fall-calving cows that would need sustenance. Renting a tractor was a possibility but the options were limited and even with a tractor it would amount to many long, cold rides from the barn to the fields. And access to the place was sketchy at best in the event of snow or ice.
So I ran the bale grazing concept by my apprentice/assistant/intern/right-hand-man, a sharp young guy with no background in the cattle business. His reaction, coming from a perspective of fresh eyes and fresh brain cells, was that we’d be stupid not to try it.
- Guille Yearwood -