To borrow a phrase from ‘the kids,’ Montana winters just hit different. I’m talking -25 degrees different, at times. Getting ready to go out and do chores this time of year means bundling up in multiple layers, fighting frozen water troughs, and envying the sheeples’ thick warm fleece.
Though winter can sometimes feel never ending, it can also be a welcome break. As long as we are well prepared and well supplied, the shorter days and evenings by the wood stove can be a nice reset. But we have to be ready for anything, and winter can make tremendous demands of us, particularly during storms.
Here at Little Creek, our sheep and cattle are fed by pasture grasses during the spring, summer and fall. But what about in the winter when the ground has frozen and the pastures have gone dormant? That’s where hay comes in! Hay is simply dried and baled forage. But there’s nothing simple about it. As a new rancher, I had so many questions. What kind of hay do I need? How much will we need? What do the different cuttings mean? How will we ever be able to grow our own?
I’m proud to say that now, five years into our ranching journey, this is the first year that we are feeding hay we’ve grown and baled ourselves, on our own leased pasture! We still have plenty to improve and fine tune in the future, but it’s all part of the learning curve, and we are proud nonetheless. Alright, let’s get into it!
What Is Hay Made Of, and Why Do We Feed It?
So what exactly is hay? Hay can be made from many different types of forage in the form of grasses and/or legumes, but ours is made from cured + dried orchard grass and alfalfa grown right next to our house during the summers. Once the grass and alfalfa have grown to the right height, they’re cut down and left in rows to dry, after which they’re compacted into tight, heavy bales. Allowing the grass and alfalfa to dry before baling is super important because it ensures that the interior of the bales will be dry and protected from the elements until they’re ready to be fed. It also helps to preserve the nutrient value.
Sheep and cattle are ruminants, which means their stomachs are built to digest fibrous plant material. I like to think of the entire ruminant digestive system as a furnace. Having 24/7 access to plant material (aka pasture or hay) and being able to eat around the clock quite literally stokes the fire and is essential for keeping ruminants warm in the winter. During the winter, they also burn energy faster and therefore end up eating more than during the warmer months, as much as 25% more during extreme weather.
During the winter it costs us around $200 a day to feed the sheep and the cattle hay. We want to make sure that because the livestock are headed into breeding season and cold weather, that they are in great condition, so we don’t skimp on hay. In addition to having enough to eat (and the RIGHT kind of stuff to eat. I’ll get into that in a second), it’s important that during the winter the flock has warm and dry bedding to lay down in, as well as shelter from the wind. With all those needs met, the animals are surprisingly resilient to the cold. They were built for this, after all!
All Hay is Not Created Equal
I got lucky: I married a hay expert. Justin and his family are well known for growing perhaps the best hay in our valley. They’ve sent their hay all over the state, the country, and even overseas! So I learned quickly from him that all hay is not created equal.
The hay we feed the sheep and cattle during the winter needs to be high quality and high in protein. But what does that mean? To put it simply, hay quality is determined by not only the forage species, but also the time of year and the conditions under which it was baled. Ever heard the expression, “make hay while the sun shines?” Putting up great hay is a temperamental, finicky process and it can all be spoiled by the wrong weather. Luckily, you can get multiple hay cuttings from the same field throughout the summer. If the first cutting gets rained on, you hope for better luck during the second.
Source: Wagon Wheel Farm
In our area there are typically two or three cuttings done on each grass field. The first cutting comes in the early summer when the grasses send up big stems and stalks to grow as tall as possible and utilize spring nutrients. This hay is super fibrous, and the first cutting is typically cheaper because of its lower nutritional value. The second cutting is less stemmy than the first cutting and more nutritious but still fibrous to some degree. The third cutting, if you can get it cut before the snow flies, is by far the least stemmy, the highest in protein, and therefore also the most expensive.
Some feed stores and hay farms will provide an analysis of the nutritional content of their hay for you on request and you can also have your hay tested so you can know for sure what you’re getting.
How We Feed Hay
Agriculture is not one-size-fits all, and our hay strategy changes year by year. But in general, when the snow on the ground accumulates and the animals can no longer graze, we begin feeding hay. (Right now, our cattle and sheep are still digging through the snow to graze, but our days are numbered! We’ll likely start feeding hay more heavily soon.)
But when it comes to *how* we feed the hay, we’ve experimented with a couple different methods that can aid in our mission to foster better soil health. The hay bales are heavy, around 1200 lbs each. You’ve probably seen me in a tractor, loading the big heavy hay bales on the back of the hay truck, and then feeding cattle flake by flake around the pasture. This method spreads the hay out so all the animals get their own pile, and means that organic material is sprinkled around the pasture from both the hay itself as well as the manure. Less of the hay is wasted this way and it’s great for the soil.
However, this year we’ll be experimenting with a new process called bale grazing. Bale grazing is when we put a whole bale down and let the animals feed from it, without spreading it out. This method does leave much more waste (about 20% of the bale) but in the spring we can spread that “waste” around the pasture and use it as an extremely effective fertilizer. One key requirement of bale grazing is that the ground needs to be frozen so that the influx of hay doesn’t kill the plants underneath, so we can’t start it quite yet. But we’re excited to try it and see how it affects pastures in the spring!
I’ve just spent so many paragraphs telling you all the ways hay is beneficial to our operation, so you might be surprised by my final thoughts. But my long term (ok, very long term) goal is to quit hay!
Or - quit feeding hay as much as possible. Why? Hay is expensive and labor intensive. It takes a lot of time and equipment and expense to raise and bale right. But that’s not my real issue with it. My real issue is this: we spend all this time and energy and fuel taking grass from a pasture and then feeding it to animals somewhere else. Doesn’t it make sense to just leave it where it is, cut out the intermediate processes, and let them graze it in the field?
This is called stockpiling. Basically, you reserve a large amount of your pastures for winter stockpile grazing. Since the plant has gone dormant, some of the nutrition has been lost from the plant. But under the right conditions, and with a little protein supplementation, there are ranches that are having great success with stockpiling. And they save a lot of time, labor, and money in doing so. Not to mention - they reap a ton of soil health benefits.
Stockpiling is certainly not for everyone, and our northern winters present a lot of challenges. We’ve had mixed results with it so far, and I’m sure we will always feed some hay during the winter. But I do hope that each year we graze more and feed less. It's a win-win-win.
I know that I’ve only really scratched the surface when it comes to hay so I hope that this post is at least somewhat demystifying!
Feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comments below!