Squirrel Mode, aka Winter Feed Math

When I can no longer see my counter through the piles of apples, peppers, and tomatoes, and I’ve stubbed my toe at least twice on the canning pot that is parked for a few months on my kitchen floor, I think about how we’re not so different from wild animals. Putting up food for the winter is a time-honored tradition, if no longer a necessity for most humans. Even with nearby grocery store displays piled high with produce through the depths of the Cold, many of us still feel compelled to “squirrel” away food in pantries and freezers. What better way to store the Summer sunshine?

But how many of us ever calculate, by weight, how much food we need to sock away to get through the long dark season? Or analyze its nutritional content? Or worry that if we didn’t store enough, we will starve in late Winter? If you’ve ever overwintered ruminant animals—horses, cows, sheep, or goats—you’re familiar with all of these considerations. It’s called Winter Feed Math. And if you get it wrong, your animals may not starve, but you’ll be in the unfortunate situation of having to procure hay during the lean months of March or April, when hay is scarce and expensive, and fields are muddy and impassable. In a very dry year like 2020 has been, the irony is that livestock farmers start feeding hay sooner because their pastures stop growing, so they need to buy more hay than usual, while the hay producers inevitably produce less because their hay fields aren’t growing either. It may actually be impossible to find hay by next Spring.

Growing up in upstate NY, I was surrounded by hay fields, but never gave them much thought until I had livestock of my own. Now I appreciate hay-making for the skilled endeavor it is – part science, part art, part meteorology. The field must have a good mix of palatable plants, and must be cut at the right stage. Too mature and it will be more stem than leaf, resembling straw more than feed. Then after drying a bit it’s carefully tedded into fluffy rows, where it dries further until it’s baled. But if it gets rained on during any stage of this process, nutrients wash away and the feed value of the hay is reduced.  With sufficient rain, but enough dry periods at exactly the right time, and fields with decent fertility and species mix, a hay producer can get 3 cuttings of hay per growing season, but these cuttings vary in their nutritional value, mostly in terms of protein and energy.

Animals at varying stages of growth and gestation have different nutritional needs. Think of how much more a pregnant woman or nursing mom needs to eat in order to grow and feed her baby! It’s the same with sheep and cows; in late pregnancy and throughout lambing or calving season, they need very high quality nutrition – not just any old hay will do!

Animals eat 3% of their body weight every day, so an 1100 lb cow needs 33 lbs of hay per day. In a normal year, we estimate hay feeding season at 200 days in length – more than half a year. In dry years like this one, it can be more like 250 days! At anywhere from $120-190/ton, hay is the single largest expense for a livestock producer, running in the thousands of dollars even for a relatively small flock. Our 95 sheep, 4 steers and 2 calves need over 60 tons of hay for this Winter!

So there is a great financial incentive to keep animals eating “free” pasture for as long as possible. With some forethought–and blessings from the weather deities–you can stockpile lush late Summer pasture growth and ration it out to your herd in the Winter. Even with snow on the ground, they will still dig through to find the sweet grasses and legumes below. Of course, this depends on the snow depth and is usually only possible through December in our area.

When the weather finally breaks in the Spring and we transition the animals from hay to pasture, they exhibit a joy that closely resembles my reaction to eating the first fresh greens of Springtime, after months of canned and frozen veggies. I feel joy, and a sense of relief that all our squirreling food away got our animals and us through yet another long Winter.

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