Winter preparation is a year-long undertaking on a pasture-based farm. Even when the summer days are long and the icy winter weather seems lifetimes away, Walden partner farmers plan their herd size, keep paddocks from being overgrazed, and cut forage when it is at peak nutritional value. During the coldest, wettest, and windiest months, many animals require more energy to put on weight and maintain health. Meeting these needs during winter is challenging for any livestock operation, especially for pasture-based farmers in New England.
In conventional farming, farmers consolidate animals into feedlots and feed them high-concentrated, grain-based diets. Pasture-based farms have figured out how to winter animals in a manner that is in line with how ruminants would winter over in nature.
With a mix of modern farming best practices, old-fashioned know-how, and the raw materials that mother nature provides, Walden partner farmers keep their animals safe and happy even as the temperatures dip below zero.
There are no flies in winter
Previous generations of local farmers used to keep cattle in tight barns that trapped animal body heat and housed concentrated food sources. The prevailing wisdom was that the animals were cold and didn’t want to go outside. Anyone who’s ever taken a scenic drive through the rolling New England countryside has seen the barns off in the distance—two-story red structures, just big enough for a herd of cattle to pack in and keep each other warm.
However, modern animal science has shown that airflow is more important than heat for cattle health and well-being. Barn design that allows animals free access to open pasture helps combat pneumonia and respiratory illness in cattle better than herding them into rush-hour subway car conditions and waiting out the snow.
“Cold air is actually not as big of a deal for the animal itself; it’s wind, wet rain and heavy snow that make the animals uncomfortable,” said Steve Schubart, Walden’s farm auditor and a farmer himself. “An open-walled structure where they can go to get out of the rain and wet snow, and that provides natural light and good airflow, is key.”
Just as important as having a shelter from the wet and windy weather is having an outdoor area where the animals can exercise and breathe fresh air. Even on the coldest clear days, when the wind isn’t too bad, Steve says he often sees cows out in the fields, grazing on stockpiled grass through six inches of snow rather than lying down in the bedded hay inside the barn.
“The great thing about raising cattle in New England specifically is that they’re actually very comfortable in cool or even cold temperatures,” said Steve. “It’s during hot temperatures when cows are more uncomfortable. There are no flies in winter.”
Cutting hay is a science—and an art
When it comes to nutrition, many Walden partner farmers produce enough grass on their farms to feed their animals all winter long—but it’s not easy. Knowing how much hay an animal needs, how much a paddock produces, and when the grass should be cut for optimal nutrition helps farmers plan the size of the herd they can sustain during the winter.
Bale grazing setup for winter
“You’re looking for a high energy content in the grass, before the seed head pops out,” said Steve. “That’s when all of that nutrition is in the leaf of that grass and not going towards reproduction. The high energy that cows love—and that fattens them up—is in that green growth stage of the leaves of grass. It can be a little bit of an art and a science to find the perfect cutting for grazing.”
Pastured cattle continue to eat grass throughout the winter, much of which has been cut and dried out for long-term storage. Some farmers feed their grazers dried hay stored in barn lofts after the growing season ends. Others ferment forage into baleage, which is wrapped in plastic and stored for the winter. The fermentation process happens when the grass is cured wet, and it aids in digestion and overall intestinal health.
Photo showing the value of cattle impact and good grazing management with a proper trampled mulch layer of grass that insulates and protects the valuable soil below.
“Baleage is what you see in those big marshmallow looking things in the field,” said Steve. “Those are big bales of grass hay that’s being fermented, which actually helps deliver nutritional energy.”
Walden partner farmers also feed their cattle supplements such as mineral and trace-mineral salt blocks, kelp, and diatomaceous earth, which is an organic dewormer. However, pasture-based farmers feed their livestock these supplements year-round, not just in winter.
“They are all general cattle health supplements that you would provide to an organic or antibiotic-free herd regularly,” said Steve. “In winter, you’re supplementing grass with high-quality hay. The key to finishing good, grass-fed beef in the winter is knowing how to produce good, high-quality hay in the spring, summer, and fall. The hay should match the nutritional quality of when the cattle harvest it themselves, on the pasture.”
Peace in the Valley
The flies are long gone, and fresh grasses in the paddocks have been cut, dried, and stored—enough to last the herd until the grasses grow in the fields again, next spring. A mama pig nurses her piglets in the heated farrowing barn between trips to forage in the silvopasture. Much of the other wildlife has gone to sleep for the season or flown south to wait out the cold weather. Winter is a peaceful time on the farm in New England.
“Things are a lot quieter on the pasture during the winter. There are fewer birds and animals in the ecosystem above the snow, but the soil below is still teaming with life and organisms,” said Steve. “The cattle grow very fluffy winter coats. They also grow some interesting winter hairdos, which can be fun to watch.”
In addition to feeding and caring for livestock, winter can be a time of budgeting, planning, and repair around the farm. For our partner farmers, making it through the winter is much easier knowing there’s a steady, dependable income every month—which you make possible as a Walden member.
Thank you for all you do to support farming in New England—from all of us and our partner farmers throughout the region, your support helps pasture-based farms provide healthy, sustainable food for our communities all year round.
All photos are from Steve Schubart’s farm in Charlotte, Vermont