The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Winter pasture options

FescueWinter is the trickiest time to keep animals fed, but Logsdon offers enough suggestions to fuel years of experimentation.  First, there are the basics --- stockpile grasses for ruminants so they can eat in the fields, spreading their manure as they go.  But if you want fresh winter food for your animals to harvest on the hoof, there are other options as well.

Although fescue is not one of the most palatable grasses, Logsdon (and his buddy Bob Evans, of restaurant fame) consider this grass the key to year-round grazing since it will grow a bit even in the winter.  This photo shows a clump of fescue in my garden, amid our usual bluegrass --- you can tell that the fescue got a jump start on spring and is already too tough for a chicken to nibble on.  To manage a fescue pasture, Logsdon suggests keeping it short and tender with frequent cutting in the spring, and being careful of the endophytes that can make certain animals sick.  He lets fescue and bluegrass grow together, mowing closer if he wants to encourage the bluegrass and higher if he wants the fescue to spread.

Chicken in winter oatsWinter grains can provide lots of winter forage as long as you don't mind cultivating the ground and replanting every  year.  Logsdon mentions a recent study in Ohio where oats were planted in August and then strip grazed by cattle from November through March (with a few weeks break in February when ice was too thick for the cows to break through).  Tender young oat leaves contain 20% protein, and our chickens were willing to nibble on them once other greenery died back last winter.  Other winter grains have varying levels of palatability and winter hardiness, but you might try wheat, barley, and rye as well.

Roots like turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, mangels, and sugar beets fill the niche of corn (providing lots of carbohydrates), but are generally more expensive to grow.  The positive side of roots is that you can sometimes plan them so that the animals harvest the roots right out of the field.  Turnips and rutabagas are best for winter harvesting since the roots stick out of the ground some, while hogs will harvest sweet potatoes earlier in the year.

However, roots do have their problems as winter forage for livestock.  They're all very watery, so animals have to eat a lot to get the same amount of energy they'd get from grains --- it takes four bushels of sweet potatoes to equal the nutritional value of one bushel of corn, and other roots are even worse.  Roots also tend to cause diarrhea in some animals if fed fresh in the field, and all but mangels and sugar beets change the flavor of milk.  Bob Chicken eating mustardEvans feeds his livestock 75% turnips and 25% stockpiled grass to work around some of the issues with roots.

The final option for non-grain winter feed is leafy greens.  Crucifers like kale, rape, kohlrabi, and cabbage are all eaten happily by sheep, while chickens love Swiss chard.  Our chickens seemed to prefer the mustard greens we sowed along with oats in our experimental winter pasture over the grain.  And although Austrian winter peas have a big following, our flock turned up their noses at the overwintering legumes.

Are there winter pasture options you use that I didn't mention here?  I hope you'll leave a comment and share your wisdom.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I finally finished reading this book (well, at least the parts I'm interested in), and one thing I'm not sure about is what's growing in our upper field. Since it's clumpy and still got a little bit of green in mid-winter, I'm guessing it's fescue? Do you think our mowed lawn area is bluegrass like yours? If you have a good resource for identifying grasses (for dummies like me), I'd be interested to know about it.
Comment by mitsy Sat Feb 16 10:03:11 2013

Mitsy --- I feel like a dummy whenever I try to identify grasses, and I'm afraid I've yet to find a book to help me out. I'm learning the most common ones through google image searches, but I'm far from an expert. If you find a good source, please let me know!

I wish I'd paid more attention to your grasses when I was over there --- I can't really remember what you have. If you post some photos on your blog I might have ideas. Meanwhile, off the top of my head, I'd say you probably do have fescue, especially if the plants are rough-looking and -feeling --- fescue is very common around here in less maintained areas. Bluegrass is just the opposite --- tender and thin-leaved.

Actually, I just went back and looked at my photos from our visit, and I'm guessing that's fescue on the side of the road just before you hit the corn crib. Up at your higher spring, I see tall tufts of orangey broom-sedge, which is often found on worn-out soil around here. I feel like the highest open area we went to might have had bits of bluegrass low down below other plants. But these are just guesses from photos!

Comment by anna Sat Feb 16 10:22:06 2013
I'm going to see if I can find an online resource. I did read somewhere that identifying grasses can be difficult for even the most experienced botanist, so we may just be going on trial and error for the piggies...
Comment by mitsy Sat Feb 16 10:36:19 2013
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