Preparing the Farm and Garden for Spring at Polyface Farm

Spring starts early on the Salatin homestead, where winter is packed with preparations for next season’s new growth.

| February/March 2018

  • After the cows go out to graze in spring, Polyface Farm’s “pigaerators” move in to turn the deep bedding into compost.
    Photo by Flickr/Brian Johnson and Dane Kantner
  • As winter fades away, Polyface Farm employees check the infrastructure for damage and make repairs if necessary.
    Photo by Rachel Salatin
  • Fencing maintenance comes first because livestock can’t inhabit the fields without it.
    Photo by Shutteye Photography
  • Water is abundant in spring, meaning leaks can be repaired without worrying about squandering this important resource.
    Photo by Shutteye Photography

Each spring, our farm requires a flurry of preparation as we transition from cold weather to warm. Here in Swoope, Virginia, smack-dab in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, our frost dates are May 15 and September 15. But plenty of plant growth occurs, both in the garden and in the field, far before and after these official season-changing dates.

Several years ago, our farm hosted a local student for an externship. Her official report following the experience addressed what had been her biggest takeaway, and her response shocked me. She said that on her family’s conventional livestock farm, winter is always seen as a downtime during which nothing is prepared for spring. “Farm work,” to them, simply means marking time awaiting the change in weather. In contrast, at Polyface Farm, the entire winter is seen as a prologue to spring. Every project anticipates the seasonal change and leverages winter’s singularities to capitalize on spring’s opportunities.

We begin preparing our farm and garden for each spring the previous fall. How we leave the pastures after their final grazing speaks volumes about what they’ll look like two weeks into the first days of spring. Leaving pastures debilitated and pounded into the ground stunts spring growth by a couple of weeks and reduces the first month’s growth exponentially.

As we enter the dormant season, then, we rotate through the pastures daily, remaining highly cognizant of north and south aspect, fertility, and tendency to wetness. At some point, every pasture receives its final graze of the season. Grazing too hard after dormancy means the pasture won’t have cover through winter. Grazing too early can mean that the pasture will grow back in those waning days of fall and will then freeze prior to replacing the energy expended by roots in sending out those new shoots. This weakens the plant and exacerbates energy deficiency throughout winter.

Planning the grazing schedule is part of spring growth’s robustness — or lack thereof. Generally, we try to get through low ground earlier, knowing that at any time heavy winter rain or snow could make these pastures too soft to handle livestock. The north slopes stop growing first; south slopes continue to grow the longest. Beyond those considerations, we also shift our grazing pattern from year to year so that we don’t graze off the same paddock at the same seasonal time each year. This management fluctuation encourages sward diversity and ensures that if we weaken one field one year, we won’t weaken it the following year. Nothing is perfect; yearly change-up prevents the same imperfection from happening on the same field two years in a row.

After we’ve finished with stockpiled pasture (often as late as early February), we begin feeding hay in the shed, where we use a deep-bedding concept — a “carbonaceous diaper.” This is our spring fertilizer. The grazing plan minimizes pasture damage during the dormant season; the hay-feeding plan leverages this activity to produce the compost fertilizer, which we’ll apply after spring green-up. By bringing the animals into sheds on up to 4 feet of deep bedding during the late-winter mud season, we protect the pastures from hoof damage.

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