Preserving on a cattle farm
July 19, 2019
Summer is a time of growth and abundance. Out here on the farm, we are enjoying lots of goodies coming out of our house garden and getting ready for the late summer onslaught of canning and preserving that comes with plentiful tomatoes, root crops, berries and herbs.
But we have another bumper crop that peaks in late June. The pastures! I like to think of harvesting all that grass as engaging in preserving on a grand scale. Picture snipping a few basil plants and hanging them to dry, but for 80 cattle for 6 months!
The process is fairly simple in theory. Cut the fields when they are at their peak nutrition.
Wait two to three days for the crop to dry out as much as possible, then use a large rake to flip the forage and let it dry some more. Farmers then assess the moisture content of the grass to decide whether it is ready to bundle together for the winter (usually below 20% moisture). This bundling is called baling. Here at Doublejay Farms, we do round baling, which involves feeding the hay into the baler in an ever growing spiral of hay until it reaches the size you want (5ft diameter for us!), at which point the big cylinder gets wrapped in twine and dumped out the back of the machine. Next bale!
Of course, haying in practice is a lot more complicated. Add in unpredictable weather both on the micro-scale ("My hay was almost dry enough! Where did that thunderstorm come from?!") and the macro-scale ("June was so wet this year we couldn't get equipment on the fields without damaging them!") and you'll get a small sense of what hay season is like.
In addition to drying out the hay (dehydration), we can also use fermentation! And let me tell you, Cows LOVE fermented grass. This process is similar to dry baling, except that the moisture level required is closer to 50%. Now normally if you bale hay with excessive moisture, you leave yourself vulnerable to the hay literally spontaneously combusting. This is due to the excessive water feeding bacterial populations that, with the help of oxygen, generate surprising amounts of heat. However, if you are able to seal the forage and keep oxygen from entering the bales, this favours anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that operate in oxygen-less environments) that instead use the sugars in hay in a fermentation process. This avoids the nutritional breakdown that occurs when dehydrating and makes the whole bale more palatable to cattle. In other words... they devour this stuff!
Whichever way it's done, the goal is to save enough feed till the next growing season and keep the cattle healthy and happy!