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In the Footsteps of a Winter Grazier

Troy's foot printLouis Bromfield said in his book, Out of the Earth, “A farmer can learn as much from his own land as any college of agriculture can teach him—–if he keeps his eyes open to what is going on around him when he walks the land.” This sentiment was borne out of the Chinese proverb, “The best fertilizer of any farm is the footsteps of the owner.”

This walking, hearing, seeing, smelling, kneeling, digging and being at one with the land has always been endorsed as a good thing by educators, conservationists, farmers themselves and recently, my cardiologist. The challenge: It takes time to linger long enough to notice something meaningful.

The benefit of grazing stockpiled pasture into winter is I don’t need vehicular propulsion, just some portable fencing, my own horsepower and a camera. Because I’m more like a tortoise than a hare, reading the environment in slower motion is really profound. Let me embellish you on what I have noticed from my daily jaunts. See if these experiences resonate with you also.

My fence-moving ritual is pretty habitual as I take down the poly-wire and give the heifers a fresh break of grass. Like clockwork, this activity stimulated a pair of hawks to fly overhead and seek out food. I sat in my friend’s tree-stand to watch. It was something to see the stomping and chomping livestock stirring up the mini snowdrifts around the peek-a-boo orchardgrass clumps and sending a flurry of field mice into the waiting talons. However gruesome the scene was, to me it was how a harmonious winter grassland was supposed to act in nature.  Buffalo grazing may have been a bit more authentic.

Snow makes an excellent marker for seeing animal tracks and movement patterns. Ever pay attention to what is crisscrossing your property and where? The deer stay one paddock ahead of the cows and bed down in the wetland rushes, the rabbits, voles and foxes intersect in the hedgerows and I can study where they like to drink. It’s pretty gratifying to have created these natural areas and just enjoy the scenery.

If you want to get a glimpse of winter biology get on bended knee and dig yourself a hole in the snow to the soil surface and see what’s happening. On our place with the rested sward of plants there is a herd of earthworms still munching. The castings are a stark reminder that if you don’t consider fodder management to feed this livestock too, your spring green-up won’t be very robust. Frozen open winters are great for out-wintering but can take a toll on the little creatures. It’s helpful to monitor this situation even in cold weather.

Lately I’ve been fascinated with snow whorls and drifts. Because I’m in the water retention business among other things, I want to capture all the snow I can and pray for a slow melt to fill my aquifers. I’m noticing subtle and slap-upside-your-head benefits of ground cover and hedgerows. Paying attention to grass residuals, even 6 inches, doubles the snow catching ability of the land. As much as I fight knapweed, the upright florets left from the grazing season sequester an amazing amount of blowing snow. I’m also seeing the payback on snow catch from planting a variety of shrubs and tree heights in my hedgerows at the prodding of my Silvo-pasture buds.

One thing that keeps puzzling me is why I’m still seeing Bluebirds into early winter. Are my planted American Cranberry hedgerow crop, extended grazing strategies and many bird boxes keeping them here longer? Have I created a micro-climate that signals it’s ok to stay? Is it global warming? They are a good marker for how good your grass management is, so I intend to keep monitoring.

So I notice things. It’s a luxury of owning a farm that many wish they had or take for granted. When I do my stroll, the thing that is most pleasing is capturing the scenes on my digital camera. There is not a day that goes by that something is not picture worthy. And when I forget the camera, it seems I always miss the best shots.

While hoofing up the hill has its advantages to the senses and getting your heart rate going, it’s also beneficial to bring a sled and enjoy a different form of transportation on the way back. In keeping with childhood traditions, snow drifts can take on a whole other meaning. Righteous air dude!

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