Friday, March 22, 2013

Ann Larkin Hansen: C’mon, Spring!

Late March here on the farm in northern Wisconsin, and we’re pretty much just waiting around for the snow to melt. We’ve wrapped up the woods work of tree thinning and pruning for the season, and the other winter jobs of ordering seeds and supplies, filing taxes, and taking care of organic certification paperwork are mostly done. I’m ready for spring.

But March is ever fickle, and instead of warm spring breezes, we woke up Monday morning to eight fresh inches of heavy white stuff and a day of shoveling and snowblowing.

At that point I decided the heck with getting the fruit trees pruned; that job can wait a week or two until I don’t have to wear snowshoes to get around in the orchard.

I do have to walk out to the cattle’s outwintering area, though, since the hay feeders need to be changed today. But that’s not hard; I can follow the trail they’ve made through the deep snow.

The hay feeders in the cattle’s outwintering area

Outwintering accomplishes several good things on our farm: First, because the hay bales are set up in a hay field, the winter manure is spread for me, right where I want it, so there’s no spring manure hauling. All I have to do is run a spring-tooth harrow over the area a couple of times to break up clots of old hay and manure. Second, this system puts many of the nutrients that were taken out of the soil in the form of hay right back where they came from, keeping the all-important soil well nourished. Third, putting the bales out ahead of time really minimizes time and labor for winter feeding. The three or four days I spend each fall setting up, usually in very pleasant weather, means I don’t have to start the tractor all winter!

Here’s how outwintering works on our place: Every fall I set the round bales out in a 20-by-20-foot (more or less) grid. I build a semipermanent three-strand electric fence (top and bottom wires live, middle wire grounded) around three sides of the hay grid, and on the fourth side I put two temporary wires across, strung on fiberglass step-in posts that are stuck into the hay bales. I put round bale feeders on the row of bales I’ve left outside the wire. When the cattle have eaten those bales, I move the temporary wires back to the next row of bales, then flip the feeders up and roll them to the bales I’ve just “unfenced.” And voila! The cattle are fed for the next several days.

I learned this system from other rotational grazers in the area, and it's slick!

But this year’s hay is dwindling fast, another reason I’m anxious for spring and green grass. Last year’s early, dry spring and dry summer left me, and most farmers in our area, short of hay, even though we were just north of the drought line. I’ve counted the remaining bales and calculated the likely number of days till full pasture feeding, and if spring isn’t too tardy, there shouldn’t be any problem. But there isn’t much of a buffer this year.

C’mon, spring!


Ann Larkin Hansen is the author of The Organic Farming Manual, The Landowner’s Guide to Managing Your WoodsFinding Good Farmlandand the forthcoming Electric Fencing. For the last 20 years, she has studied and used electric fencing on her own farm in Bloomer, Wisconsin. Hansen’s profile in the farming demographic continues to grow with the popularity of her presentations at Mother Earth News fairs. She has also contributed to Mother Earth News magazine.

Ann’s Finding Good Farmland is available where book are sold. Look for the digital edition in April 2013, available through all major ebook retailers ! 

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