When we purchased Windhorse Farm the soils were depleted with a relatively thin organic layer over clay. Our objective has been to deepen the organic layer through a combination of strategies. One of these strategies is called Managed Intensive Grazing or MiG.
Managed Intensive Grazing is a grazing technique where grazing animals (our beeves) are allowed to graze in specified areas, for specified periods. The areas and periods are determined primarily based on the pasture growth cycle and the herd size. Using portable electric fencing, we are able to create the ideal sized grazing paddock for the beeves.
The pasture is grown to 10+ inches in height before the cattle are put onto it. The paddock is sized to simulate about 100,000 pounds of beef per acre, which I am sure sounds like a lot. They are allowed to graze this paddock of 1 day, at most 2, or until the pasture has been reduced to about 6 inches in height. At this point the beeves are moved onto the next paddock which is ready and waiting for them.
It is critical that the just-grazed paddock is rested and the pasture grasses and legumes allowed to fully recover prior to being grazed again. Depending on the season and weather conditions and the condition of the soil, this can be from as little as 21 days to as much as 45 days or more. If the beeves were allowed to gaze this paddock for more than a very few days, they would go back and re-graze (take a second bite) of the clovers and other sweet plants which they ate first, and thereby reduce substantially the changes that these high value plants would recover. This is because the plant used up its carbohydrate reserves, needed to re-grow, in creating that second bite. Instead, we allow the paddock to recover fully before the animals are put back onto it.
This pattern of grazing and resting the pasture takes full advantage of the plants ability to grow back and provide a succulent crop for the animals. In 2011, we were able to graze areas up to 4 times during the growing season using this technique thereby creating a substantially higher total yield than would have been possible with continuous grazing.
The techniques also allows the pasture plants to build strong deep roots and encourages the development of a rich and diverse soil biology.
Why doesn’t everyone use MiG? Well, like the name implies, MiG requires daily tending to the animals, moving fences, moving water, moving minerals, ensuring amble shade in summer. All of this means more work for the farm manager. Putting a herd onto a large open pasture for extend periods is far less labour intensive. For us, the cost is worth the effort as otherwise one looses all the benefits outlined above and instead pastures are depleted, soil fertility is lessoned, soil biology is lost and the animal quickly eat the rich grasses and are left with low carbohydrate, low protein feed.
It’s a well established fact in beef circles that having all calving take place within a short period is easier to manage than having calves born throughout the year. Calving times determine feed needs to a large degree. For example, cows need access to optimum feed during the last trimester (cows have a 9 month gestation, like humans) when the calf is growing at its fastest rate and to ensure that a strong, healthy calf is born.
Likewise, cows will experience their heaviest milking about 60 to 90 days after the calf is born, thereby needing access to exceptional feed at this time as well.
Calving time determines weaning time as well. The ‘normal’ weaning age is at approximately 6 months. We believe that keeping the calf on the mother for 9 months is better for a couple of reasons. First, we’ve noticed and studies have shown that by 9 months of age, the calf is almost entirely onto a forage/grass diet and the loss of mother’s milk goes almost unnoticed. Second, the cow and calf are ready for independence and thus the weaning process is less stressful on both mother and calf. Weaning at nine months also allows the cow to have 3 months, the last trimester, free of lactating and instead focus its energy onto the new calf growing rapidly within her.
When calving times vary widely within a herd, the farm manager is challenged to provide optimum feed for each cow and cow/calf pair when they need it most. As well, when calving times vary widely, weaning is taking place at various times as well, adding to the herd management challenge.
We are expecting our calving season to run from June 15 to August 10 in 2012. If you can make it out to the farm during that period and into September, it’s great fun to see the new borns romping about having ‘calf races’.
Among the non-domesticated animal life at Windhorse Farm, we’ve had two ‘firsts’ this past fall.
The first one took place in October, when amidst a heavy tree fruit crop in our neighbourhood, bears were a regular occurrence. While for the most part, they go about their business of raiding apple, pear and plum trees, they do from time to time ‘surprise’ us. Such was the case this year.
After telling a house guest over breakfast that the bears never venture into our farmyard due to our fencing and dogs, I was proven wrong. Within minutes of the conversation I walked into our hay barn to find a fresh bear scat in the middle of the spot where it clearly had bedded down for the night! Safe it to say, we’re a little more cautious now.
The second ‘first’ was the arrival in late October of a beautiful , cock ringed-neck pheasant, the first one we’ve seen in the area. As of this writing he is making his home in the hedgerows and tall grass that surrounds the pond. We’re hoping he finds a mate by spring.