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Preparing for winter

Posted 10/29/2017 12:51pm by Kinley Coulter.
Genesis 8:22...While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.
     Someone with too much time on their hands has gone to the trouble of calculating how many blades of grass there are in an acre of pasture or hayfield.  Using the shockingly small amount of schooling that has stuck with me through the three or four decades since I graced a classroom, I determined that there are precisely 100 billion blades of grass frolicking in the October breeze on this bright fall afternoon, on the 300 Certified Organic acres that we farm in perennial grass.  October 31st is effectively the end of our grazing season here on the farm.  After a few hard freezes and the long nights that accompany them, these blades have given up and gone dormant, and all growth above ground has stopped.  Underground, however, frenzied preparation for winter is going on in earnest.  Our cool season grasses and legumes are busily developing their root systems in the still-warm soil… thumbing their vegetative noses at the cold air, and its threats of winter weather on the way.  When spring comes, these pastures will ‘spring’ to life with a vengeance… ready to richly feed another batch of lambs, beef cattle and milk cows with nutrient dense grasses.  

     This innate motivation to to prepare for winter is not limited to perennial grasses.   We farmers have been storing away what we need for winter as well.  Our barns are bursting… full to the rafters with the equivalent of 15 tractor trailer loads of sweet, crunchy, dry hay bales.
 Outdoors, safely wrapped in plastic, are another 30 tractor trailer loads of moist, sweet-smelling fermented hay, called 'baleage.’  
     Many tons of organic straw and corn fodder are waiting to be used to create warm, soft, dry, clean bedding packs for all of the animals.  The bedding from last winter has been carefully piled, composted, turned over and patiently composted again, throughout the spring and summer, until it has broken down into a dry, crumbly, pleasant, farmy smelling pile of about 1/3 its original volume.  This residual compost is no longer ‘raw manure’ but rather an almost magical, and exceedingly precious blend of humates,  soil nutrients, probiotics and enzymes  that we are currently spreading on our fields to restore their fertility, and activate their powerful biology in this critical, underground phase of the grass growing season.  
     We have also been replenishing our stores of firewood for the winter.  Our home is heated by the same firewood fired boiler that gently pasteurizes our bottled milk, and slightly warms our raw milk to body temperature for cheesemaking.  A lot of hot water is used for dishwashing in the processing room, and the eight of us still living here at the farm appreciate our hot showers when we come in at the end of a long day with a little too much ‘farm’ sticking to us.    Rebecca uses a lot of wood fired hot water doing (she says) loads of laundry that (unlike blades of grass) are beyond numbering.  So, the monstrous firewood pile is never quite monstrous enough, and by this time of year it's looking downright puny.  We mostly harvest trees that are ‘standing dead’ for firewood.  This opens up the canopy and forest floor for the next generation of woods.  
    With the end of grazing season, unfortunately, we need to face the end of farm market season as well.  Over the winter, we lean, heavily, on the meager finances we have stockpiled during the warm months.  Many times during the peak season - with four markets going and flush bank accounts - the temptation to make farm improvements or upgrade aging equipment has to be tempered with the sobering reality that bills and family expenses keep coming over the long winter, when the flurry of market sales is only a fond (and distant) memory.  We have been appreciating the one farm market that runs all winter.  It’s remarkable how much difference there is between 'a little income' and 'none' for 5 months :)
      Our animals are storing up for the winter, as well.  Their coats of hair have lost their summer sleekness, and they are starting to look shaggy and 'bundled up' to face the inevitable bitter cold of January and February.  The milk cows, beef cows and ewes are all pregnant (or supposed to be) so they are eating heavily and putting on ‘back fat’ for the winter.  Long winter evenings and less field and farm work can serve to put a little ‘back fat’ on a farmer, as well.  Never fear, he always manages to work most of it off in the spring :).