Preparing Your Micro Dairy for Winter

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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The biggest change that the approach of winter brings to Micro Dairies in cold climate regions like Vermont is in how the cows are fed. Even before the snow flies — around the middle of September — my cows start to lose their interest in grazing, even if the grass is lush. I think that the flavor of the grass must change as the sun gets lower in the sky; like clockwork, as soon as the leaves change color, my cows’ appetite for hay increases.

Haying equipment is expensive, and I have a full-time job off the farm running Bob-White Systems. So, I buy my hay. I purchase second- or third-cut hay (called rowan in certain parts of New England) that is harvested later in the summer. I stock up on two types for the winter — small, square and large, round bales. I buy 500 to 600 classic, small square bales that I store in my barn’s hay loft where they stay dry. I also buy 10 to 20 large, round, wrapped bales. High-quality dry hay (the small bales) is the best type of winter feed for cows because it is good for their digestion, especially their rumens, and they like it. Good-quality second- or third-cut hay (the rowan) is expensive, though less so than the small bales on a pound-for-pound basis. I have the facility and equipment to store both types.

The little square bales are tricky to make because the hay must be bone dry before it is baled. If the hay is too moist when baled and put into the hayloft, it can heat up and mold or, worse yet, spontaneously combust and burn your barn down. There is nothing worse than worrying about wet bales burning you barn down (on top of the regular list of daily chores).

The large bales, called baleage, are the things that people say look like giant marshmallows sitting in a field. This hay is baled after the mowed hay wilts but is still moist. It is then wrapped in plastic by an odd-looking machine that I won’t even attempt to describe. Once wrapped, the hay actually ferments and becomes “pickled,” which makes the hay easier for the cows to digest. This is good for their milk production. I store the larger bales outside on dry ground where the hay will stay edible all winter as long as the plastic remains intact. If the plastic gets torn and isn’t patched with tape, the hay inside will quickly begin developing a white mold and eventually the whole bale may be ruined. Watch out.

I first saw the large round bales in the early 1980s. The technology used to create baleage has really helped farmers in colder and wetter climates (like Vermont) harvest higher-quality feed. With baleage, rain isn’t as big a threat as it is with the small, square bales, especially with the first cut of hay early in the summer when rainy weather is common. Also, because the hay doesn’t need to be so dry when baled, the leaves on the nutritious alfalfa and clover don’t crumble and get lost to the ground during the baling process.

Because the hay in these larger, round bales is fermented, the flavor of your cows’ milk can be impacted. If the hay was too wet, your cows’ milk can smell like Three Bean Salad (I’m not kidding). Too dry, and the milk can smell like an old tobacco butt. For this reason, there are farmers who won’t feed baleage to their cows, especially if they make cheese with the milk. One benefit to buying hay is the ability to be choosy: I only buy hay that I know was “put up” correctly.

Regardless of how much hay I store for winter, I always worry about running out before spring. The common wisdom says that you shouldn’t be more than half way through your hay and firewood by the first of February. I am sure that I’ll worry about my hay supply this winter, even though I have fewer animals this year than I did last year.

I hate to see the summer end, but when the snow is flying outside, I find it very rewarding to see my cows enjoying emerald green rowan as they rest comfortably on their mattresses in their stalls before I turn off the barn lights at night. The next blogs in this series will cover preparing your barn, your cows and yourself for the cold weather. Stay tuned!

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