We live in northern Maine. Cold, snowy winters are the norm – not the exception. Winter can start as early as the beginning of November and last until well into “spring” time. We accept this way of life – albeit grudgingly at first – but nonetheless, we hunker down and get it done – rain, sun, snow, sleet, freezing rain, ice, etc.
Our animals’ livelihoods depend on us and being a cattle farmer is not a pick and choose career. This is not a hobby. This is not something we will get bored with in a few years. And, this certainly is not something that we do as a status symbol. For us, our beef cattle farm is so intertwined into our work and personal lives that there is no separating it out.
Being beef cattle farmers is not just something that we do, it is what we are.
Plain and simple.
This all being said, our devotion and passion for being beef cattle farmers has been tested day after day this winter, as we, in northern Maine, shatter one record after another and plunge down into recorded temperatures only experienced 2 other times in recorded history.
For example, with wind chill, our temperatures last night were just shy of -50 degrees F.
I can probably count on one hand the number of days we have had the last two months where the temperature reached 20 degrees F or higher. There have only been two days in the last two months where I have been able to take our 2-year old son outside to play. Two days. We are active people and we are used to being able to be active outside even in the winter. Our son is active – oh so very active. Two days. It.can.drive.a.person.crazy. The month of February will likely go on record as the coldest February in recorded history in Maine.
If it isn’t a blizzard outside, we are having 40-mph wind gusts or the temperatures are hypothermia- inducing type temperatures. Or some sort of horrible combination of these weather conditions.
It has been a bitter, brutally cold winter thus far and our cattle are the ones most affected. Miraculously, our cattle are still with us! 🙂 All I can say is that we have some tough, thick-skinned cows. Our herd count is currently at 20 animals, with 10 first year bred heifers, 9 bred cows, and one heifer calf. They astound us every day with their ability to not only withstand this type of cold but to, for the most part, maintain their body condition. We do have one cow and one heifer with body conditions not where we would like them but body condition has been a concern with them even not in the winter. They may likely be culled from the herd at some point. But, as a whole, we have been impressed with our cattle this winter.
We have discussed in depth in previous posts our method of wintertime feeding – hay bale grazing. Now, not only have we been experiencing a harsh winter but winter came about a month early for us and with that, we had to start our hay bale grazing a month earlier than we had hoped, in early November. Our girls transitioned well coming off pasture into hay bale grazing. We were especially pleased with how quickly our first-year heifers adapted to this type of feeding.
As winter roared into December and then into the new year, though, we noticed that our cattle were consuming almost double the dry matter that we had anticipated for them. Our girls were consuming unbelievable amounts of hay and with the bitterly cold temperatures we were experiencing, I can’t say we blamed them too much. BUT, we were starting to notice quite a bit of waste and a pattern developing where our girls would eat the highest quality portion of hay in each bale and then attempt to move onto the next bale.
At times, our cows were ignoring entire bales of hay and attempting to crawl under the electric wire to get to more hay. Due to some issues with terrible winds and rain disrupting the tarps over our hay bales in late summer/early fall, we did end up with a range in hay bale quality. That being said, though, the hay quality in even the worst quality bale was/is certainly still a sufficient food source.
To be frank, our girls were starting to get spoiled and a bit lazy. They wanted to take the cream off the top of the milk pail with no interest for the actual milk. We had to start restricting access to bales and “encouraging” them to clean up bales before opening up more access. This worked well for a while.
Then, January hit and temperatures plummeted even more and we were facing a huge problem. Even with restricting bale access and pushing our cattle to minimize hay waste, we simply did not have enough bales to last our the winter. We were straddling a very fine line with pushing our cows but also not letting them lose too much body condition. We had to do something and we had to do it NOW.
We are fortunate to have a good relationship with our hay supplier and he came through for us in a big way. In the end, he delivered almost 50 round hay bales to our farm. These hay bales had been stored in his barn from the previous summer’s cutting but they were still sufficient bales to feed our cows.
Because of the weather conditions and our limited resources, we were not able to get all 50 bales positioned into our existing hay bale rows. So, we supplemented our restricted hay bale grazing with feeding out the older hay bales in our round hay bale feeder.
After a few weeks, our cows’ hay consumption finally started to balance out and we are close to our goal value of dry matter consumed/day/animal. Those 50 additional bales are long gone, and we are back to full-time hay bale grazing. We feel confident that our remaining hay supply in our hay bale grazing sites will last us until green grass.
Oh, sweet, green grass. Please let springtime come early this year!