At Angus Glen Farms we graze 100 cows on 300 acres of rolling pastures adjacent to the Watkins Glen State Park. This is the second-most visited park in New York after Niagara Falls. Its main attraction is the Glen Creek Gorge, which passes just a few hundred yards from both of our old dairy barnyards. Two miles downstream is heart of the Finger Lakes Region: Seneca Lake. Those of you who keep livestock year-round know how quickly 100 cows can generate mud at certain times of the year. In the early years of building our herd, we did what most other beef producers do in this area: park the herd at the barn and feed them hay lots of hay. At our current size, this would result in a clear and significant impact on the watershed. About ten years ago I consulted with the local Soil and Water expert, who estimated that our barnyard needed at least $100k in “upgrades” to keep the nutrient-laden runoff from reaching Glen Creek. Building a new roofed shelter in a better location was estimated to cost $30k at that time. That’s when I decided that we had to either stay small or do things differently.
One of the big shifts in our winter management was bale grazing and out-wintering the cattle. When the herd finishes the last of the stockpiled pastures in late-December, we fence wean for about a week and then turn the main cow group back out to rotationally graze round bales until grass returns in late April. A one to two day supply of round bales are placed in a number of the 75 paddocks across the farm as time and weather permit. No bale feeders are used, and the sisal twine is left on the bales. We haven’t had problems with animals ingesting too much twine to date, but it’s a risk that every grazier should weigh individually. We try to store most of our bales under cover so that the twine is mostly intact. This helps reduce the amount that the cows are likely to eat (long, continuous loops vs. short strands). Access is left open to some of the previously bale-grazed paddocks for water access and so that the cows can bed on waste hay. A combination of energy-free waterers, streams and ponds provide winter water. As I write this, the streams, springs and ponds are frozen solid here due to some good ‘ol fashioned winter weather – so the lesson to be learned is not to be completely dependent on surface water sources. We watch the extended weather forecast and move the mob towards shelter when severe weather is imminent.
Our shelters look very different than on most farms. They are green, growing and appreciating in value – much different than our two old dairy barns. What’s better yet is the tax man can’t touch them, and they require very little upkeep. We refer to these wooded shelter areas as “living barns.” They are managed primarily to protect the cows from extreme wind chills and prolonged periods of driving snow, versus the silvopasture areas that are managed primarily to produce both quality timber and grazing. The main difference between the living barns and silvopastures is the composition and density of trees. Evergreen conifer species provide the greatest protection in living barns. Tree density (stocking) is maintained low enough to promote good growth and vigor of the best trees, but high enough to ameliorate nasty weather. By contrast, silvopastures are usually maintained at lower density to allow enough sunlight at ground level for optimal growth of both trees and forages.
Living barns require balancing density for both tree vigor and livestock protection through periodic thinnings. About one-third of the trees were removed in the young plantation shown above using a “Timber-ax” (skid steer with a mulching cutter head) to release the best trees, yet leave the ground relatively free of debris. Harvesting (removal) can be a cost-effective thinning option in larger timber. Consulting foresters can provide invaluable assistance when contemplating a commercial harvest. Herbicide injection can also be used effectively to remove cull trees, but requires caution due to potential root grafting in conifers. Girdling may work with some conifers, but trees are usually slow to die and could create a potential hazard.
Living barns are not sacrifice areas, and care should be taken not to repeatedly damage tree roots during soft ground conditions or smother roots with excessive waste hay and manure. Repeated damage and stress will result in the eventual decline or death of the living barn. Then it’s back to investing tens of thousands of dollars in building a shelter!
If you’re interested in creating living barns from scratch by planting trees, use a diverse mix of species to hedge against future pest issues. The Scots pines shown below were healthy up until a few years ago when they became infected by an invasive and lethal foliar fungus. The addition of other tree species may have limited the spread of the disease, but more importantly would have ensured sufficient residual stocking of resistant species for continued utility of the living barn.
Author Brett Chedzoy is an agroforestry specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County, NY. Over the next few months, Brett will be sharing articles covering:
- Creating quality silvopastures
- Maintaining and managing productive silvopastures
- Benefits of shaded grazing in silvopastures during summer extremes
In the meantime, the best way to contact Brett is via Cornell’s silvopasture forum: www.silvopasture.ning.com.