A game that pasture farmers like to play is seeing how long they can keep their livestock grazing in winter without feeding any hay or grain. I have a feeling that if cows and sheep had the right of suffrage, they would vote this sport off the farm. They would rather loll in the barn in winter chewing on good clover hay than nosing under two inches of snow for half-frozen fescue.
Nevertheless, they will graze on winter grasses and rather dead clover if the snow isn’t too deep. Cornell experimenters, among others, say the foliage is nutritious enough. My sheep at this very moment in December seem to be quite content to eat red clover with a dusting of snow on it. Some of the clover is brown and gone to seed since October; some of it, from this year’s seeding, is still green in spite of 25 degree weather. Every day the sheep can graze without hay is money in the bank. (Actually, that expression is obsolete. Money in the bank today is worth about as much as a patch of dead thistles.)
Some of the best graziers in America are lawn manicurists who may have never seen a grazing animal. As far north as Cleveland, Ohio, where I often go visiting, I see grass in December almost as green as it was in May. When I tell the proprietors of these mini-meadows that they should be raising sheep, especially now when the price of lamb is so high only pro-sports players and oil executives can afford to eat it, they don’t look quite as strangely at me as they used to. Chickens, which would love to graze that grass, are once again taking their rightful place in the backyards of America, and it is only a matter of time before sheep will join them.
The champion grazier of winter pasturing, so far as I know right now, is a rancher, the class of farmer that I jokingly maintain knows less about grass than the suburbanite. His name is Oren Long and he farms in Kansas. Oren and I go back a long way and we call each other occasionally to see if the other is still alive. Oren wins the don’t-feed-hay-until-you-have-to contest because he hasn’t been feeding any. He grazes all winter. The late Bob Evans of fast food sausage fame, who used to call me and hammer away about the advantages of year-round grazing, was the premier pioneer of pasture farming and he would be mighty proud of Oren. Oren’s beef cows graze fescue, red clover and assorted other grasses and weeds all winter. The most amazing part, to me, is not that he hasn’t been feeding any hay, but that by properly rotating the grazing so that half of the red clover acreage can go to seed before grazing it, he hasn’t had to do any seeding either. The cattle tramp the seeds into good contact with the soil as they graze and in that way do the annual seeding necessary to maintain red clover. They don’t charge Oren a cent.
“It isn’t really difficult to do what we’re doing,” he says. “But I have a hard time convincing other farmers that it works. We’ve all grown up out here in Kansas believing that you just have to have hay for cattle in the winter time. It is sort of like a religious belief.”
Ralph Rice, whom I call Superfarmer, sends me just today a photo of his sheep grazing snowy pastures on Dec. 3. What is remarkable about Ralph’s winter grazing is that he farms in northeastern Ohio where if you went to church on Easter wearing snowshoes, just in case, hardly anyone would raise an eyebrow. I don’t think either Ralph or I could go all winter like Oren does. Our winter climate is not as open as in his part of northeastern Kansas. There are weeks here when the snow is a foot deep or glazed over with ice. Oren says his cattle can poke down through even an icy glaze to get grass. Maybe my sheep are big sissies but they haven’t shown an inclination to cooperate that way. Or maybe I am spoiling them. Brad, my brother-in-law, says humorously that after he breaks down and feeds his sheep good hay in December “you have to almost drag them out to the pasture.”
Oren does concede that even in Kansas, one should have some emergency hay on hand just in case a really awful blizzard occurs. Or for severe drouth times. Interestingly, his permanent pastures seem to hold up better during mild drouth periods than farmed soils. The buffalo knew that too.