Cultivating Questions Overwintering the Work Force

Cultivating Questions
Concerning the Bio-Extensive Market Garden

by Anne and Eric Nordell
illustration by Ed Ochsner

Overwintering the Work Force
Stabling and Grazing Horses During the Off-season

Dear Anne and Eric,

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed your articles in SFJ and watched your video twice, so I feel I almost know you. This gives me permission to write and ask you a couple of questions. Incidentally I have written a few short articles myself and realize how much work goes into such endeavors and how miniscule the financial reward is. The hourly pay for writing, if one looks at it that way, must be less than that of farming.

The questions are about manure handling and composting. I’m impressed with your methods of preserving and using manure.

We have 150 ewes. All summer and half the winter they’re on pasture spreading their own manure. The three or four months spent in the barn, we just bed with a lot of straw and spread the manure in the spring. It’s not as good as composting, but it works for us.

Where we have a problem is with our six draft horses. For the warm three quarters of the year they’re either on pasture, working, or in their stalls (maybe 2 hours/day). In winter they’re in their stalls in the morning. The rest of the time they spend in a small paddock eating hay from a round bale feeder where they can get some exercise chasing each other around, bickering or whatever. Do you keep your horses in tie stalls all winter?

Boy, it took a lot of words to ask a simple question. It seems that wouldn’t be as healthy for them. If I had a paddock with a roof over it, I could use straw bedding and save the manure for spring. This isn’t practical. As it is, most of the manure is not only lost, but paddock environment really deteriorates in warmer weather. If I put them on a larger area when it’s wet, it will ruin the pasture. If we have corn stubble nearby, we do put the horses on it for some of the winter. Our Amish neighbors do this, too.

Maybe a box stall for each horse and a pig compost bin would work well if we had the room. A large outdoor concrete slab with a composting arrangement next to it might work, but concrete is supposed to be bad for horses’ feet and legs, not to mention expensive.

Well, it turned out to be only one question and I’ve taken up enough of your time. Keep up the good work. I’m still puzzling over the phosphate question.

Bob Kidwell
Montgomery, Michigan

Yes, we would agree that the hourly return on farm writing “must be less” than working the land. Or, to put it more positively, we make also as much cultivating questions as we do cultivating carrots! The big difference between these seasonal vocations is our typewritten manuscripts are a whole lot weedier than the vegetable rows in the bio-extensive market garden. Just ask anyone in the SFJ office!

Seriously, we cannot blame the low wages from writing this labor-of-love column for our slow response to Bob Kidwell’s important question about winter stabling and grazing. His letter has been in our CQ file since April, 2000. We have simply been too preoccupied with the intertwined CQ series on alternative tillage, nutrient management, and on-farm research to change directions midstream-of-consciousness and address Bob’s off-season topic.

Delaying our response until now may have been for the best as we can report on a few improvements we have made to winter pasture management and related infrastructure over the last five years. We have also had the pleasure of getting to know Bob and Linda Kidwell, and their sons, Matthew and Craig, much better through their participation in The Horsedrawn Circle Letter, and then visiting them after participating in the Michigan Organic Conference.

The timing could not have been better for this late February visit since it gave us the opportunity to see firsthand the Kidwell’s comfortable deep bedded winter housing for sheep at the peak of the lambing season. We were also very impressed by the efficient and healthy arrangement they have developed for wintering over their work force of six horses. The combination of round bale feeder and open air lot looked to us like a real labor saver while guaranteeing plenty of fresh air and sunshine for the idle work animals.

Our visit also coincided with an early spring thaw. The super soft soil saturated with snow melt really underscored the advantage of limiting livestock damage to a small, well-drained paddock at this time of year. In addition, the spring thaw also made clear the main drawback to overwintering horses twenty or more hours outside, namely, the potential for pollution and nutrient loss from the winter’s accumulation of horse manure exposed to the weather and run-off.

Cultivating Questions Overwintering the Work Force

By comparison, the winter arrangement for our four horses is much more labor intensive, but protects much more of their valuable manure from the elements. We tie the horses in individual stalls for the long winter nights, turning them out to pasture for at least 3-8 hours during the day, depending on the weather and how much we are working them.

This off-season routine allows us to collect and preserve the majority of the manure the horses produce over the course of the winter, and to add enough bedding for effective composting in the adjacent composting pigpens. Our four hayburners also contribute to the cold season composting effort with their body heat, keeping the old, dank barn 15-20 degrees warmer than the outside temperature.

This winter schedule ensures that the horses receive some fresh air, sunshine and exercise on a daily basis. In addition, it provides them with some fresh winter forage which we think is important, if not critical, for the grazing animal’s emotional and physical well-being.

The downside to daily winter grazing, as Bob pointed out, is that the horses can be hard on the pasture. It only takes a few weeks for four active equines to destroy the permanent sod when the frost first goes out of the ground during a January thaw, or with the advent of spring.

We have tried to turn this problem into an advantage by intentionally winter grazing the horses on the poorer parts of the pasture that would benefit from renovation. We simply broadcast clover seed on these “sacrifice areas” as soon as the snow melts, letting the horse tread the seed into the soil as they tear up the weak root system and graze the sparse forage down to the dirt. Although not as dependable a technique as plowing and preparing a clean-tilled seedbed, we have found that letting the horses do the seedbed preparation and planting on these marginal parts of our steep pasture is a lot less work – and minimizes the risk of erosion.

Combining late winter/early spring grazing with pasture renovation seems to work best when we let these sacrifice areas rest for the remainder of the grazing season. If time permits, one or two mowings helps to set back the less desirable grasses and weeds while the sun-loving clover gets established. Applying minerals, such as rock phosphate and lime, along with a mulch of strawy horse manure, also increases the chances for the new seedlings to take off and thrive in these long neglected and infertile patches of the thirty-year-old pasture.

We certainly won’t claim that this minimum impact, low-labor-and-input method for pasture improvement works every time. These rundown sections of grassland sometimes require several sacrifice treatments – or much larger doses of fertility and organic matter – before they come back to life. But when conditions are right, we have witnessed the classic succession take place from a thinned out sod of sour grasses and goldenrod to a thick stand of red clover the next year, followed by a dense sward of nutritious native grasses in year 3, all without tillage or chemical fertilizer.

This revved up succession has been most reliable and enduring when we have had the opportunity to board a few of our neighbors’ bred dairy heifers, dry cows or fattening steers. Even just a couple of young Brown Swiss-Holstein heifers given the run of 3-4 acres of recently renovated pasture seem to have an almost magical effect on rejuvenating and thickening the sod. In this respect, the true ruminants seem superior to the horses for at least three reasons: the microbially enhanced nature of the cow manure has an enlivening influence on the soil life, while increasing the germination of favorable grass and legume seeds tramped into the earth or consumed by the cattle and conveniently planted in their high fertility cow pies; the more aggressive action of their cloven feet does a better job of opening up the accumulation of thatch and allowing the old sod to breathe than the horses’ flat feet; and the more benign way the bovines harvest the grass, tearing it off with their tongues rather than eating it down to the ground like the horses do with their teeth, favors the regrowth of the grasses over the less desirable weeds.

Based on our casual observation, it is hard for us to believe that these three well-recognized attributes alone can explain the pronounced impact just a couple of young heifers can have on a relatively large area of pasture. We suspect that there must be another, much more widespread, if less detectable, inoculating effect at work, such as the “nose culture” described in the accompanying article reprinted from Acres.

Whatever the explanation for the true ruminants’ restorative influence on the grassland during the growing season, the cattle seem to be much harder on the pasture and related infrastructure than the horses in the off season. Their cloven hooves, so effective at de-thatching and aerating the permanent pasture over the dry months of summer, sink much more deeply into the mud during wet weather, turning well-traveled lanes and lounging areas into a slurry.

Of particular concern to us was the damage that the overwintering heifers and dry cows did to the spring overflow below the barn which serves as a year-round source of water for all the large animals. The cattle soon degraded this clean running stream into a series of mudholes contaminated with manure.

Cultivating Questions Overwintering the Work Force
Spring pond development soon after completion. Electric fence confines the heifers to the water flowing through the wooden troughs and the solid pad made of gravel and modified clay. This combination insures clean water and prevents the cattle from mucking up the spring-fed wetlands. In the background, the work force heads out to winter pasture on the steep sidehill.

To remedy the situation, we dug a small pond at the source of the spring in 1997 so we could pipe the overflow into two V-shaped wooden troughs. Next to these 12’ long waterers, we constructed a solid pad by installing tile pipe in this wet, seepy area and then laying down 6-8” of drainage gravel. As a finishing touch, we covered the bed of coarse gravel with a layer of “modified clay.” We like this mix of clay and small limestone aggregates because it sets up pretty hard after a rain, providing firm footing and good traction but without the expense, and horse unfriendly aspects, of concrete that Bob mentioned. More importantly, the solid pad allows year round access to the fresh flowing water in the low slung troughs while preventing the horses and heifers from mucking up the surrounding spring-fed wetlands.

We used a similar procedure the next year to begin improving the main pasture lane from the barn which crosses a swamp on the way to the hillside grass. We first dug a ditch along the upper side of the lane, then installed a culvert across the low point in this new roadway. This combination effectively diverted flooding water from crossing the lane, an occurrence that can happen several times a year in this low-lying swamp area following a lot of snow melt or many days of heavy rain.

We laid a foundation for this road in a piecemeal fashion, using wagon loads of stones collected annually from the cultivated fields in the market garden. At the end of each rock picking season, we surfaced the new stretch of field stones with “modified,’ one wheelbarrow load at a time.

Cultivating Questions Overwintering the Work Force
A. Early spring sacrifice area.
B. Improved pasture grazed late spring and again early fall.
C. Strip grazed summer pasture on relatively level, but poorly drained Albright soil.
D. Stockpiled grass, strip grazed late fall and early winter.
E. Stockpiled grass for midwinter grazing.
F. Winter grazing on frozen swampland.
1. Barn.
2. Spring pond and wooden troughs.
3. The Route 15 Bypass.
4. The Hillbilly Highway.
5. Farm Lane to access pasture and forest.

It has taken us almost seven years to completely finish this low budget project using locally grown stone and 10-20 hours a year of our off season time. But by year 4 the animals were already able to trot out to pasture on “The Route 15 Bypass” in all kinds of weather – and without sinking up to their knees in mud. Like the other two roads we have built through poorly drained parts of the farm (see the “farm lane” and “hillbilly highway” on the 2005 Pasture Map), The Route 15 Bypass also provides much more direct access to the fields and the forest for the team, pickup truck, and equipment.

Back to the topic of overwintering the work force, we consider the spring overflow and pasture lane projects as one-time, permanent improvements that have made winter grazing much more practical and less environmentally degrading. As for providing enough grass growth for winter pasturing, we have found that requires a little bit of planning and preparation on an annual basis.

For instance, we make a point of leaving some of the sidehill pasture closest to the barn ungrazed during the summer and fall to provide “standing hay” for the horses to forage for in the midwinter snow. Although the brown grass does not look like it would have much nutritional value, we have noticed that the horses’ consumption of free choice minerals increases significantly when they do not have access to this field stored forage.

Cultivating Questions Overwintering the Work Force
Horses winter grazing “standing hay” in the frozen swampland behind the barn. The coarse grass and mature seedheads that the horses choose not to eat they soon trample into the snow. The resulting mulch helps with our minimalist approach to pasture renovation and reseeding once the ground thaws – and in an area that is way to wet and rough to work with farm equipment.

Grazing the horses on standing hay in the winter does not seem to cause much damage to either the sod or the soil. This is probably because this Leck Kill silt-loam ground is extremely well-drained. Rated Class IV by the Soil Conservation Service, “with 15-25% slopes and severe cropping limitations unless intensive conservation measures are implemented,” we think wet weather pasturing is an appropriate use for this 15 plus acres of sidehill.

The drawback to winter grazing this steep hillside is the potential for horse injuries during icy conditions. To minimize the risk of ice-related accidents, we move the work force to the relatively level swampland behind the barn when it is frozen hard enough to support their weight.

In summary, we like to have three very different types of paddocks ready and waiting for winter grazing: stockpiled grass on a section of the well drained sidehill for use when the soil is soft; stockpiled grass in the frozen swampland in case of icy conditions; and an area of poor pasture to be used as a sacrifice area for spring thaw grazing and reseeding.

The key to being ready to use all three of these winter grazing options is to make sure to mow the outline of each paddock in the fall and set all the temporary step-in electric fenceposts before the ground freezes deeply. Then, it is just a matter of reeling out the polywire as needed to enclose the best suited pasture for the moment.

Of course, winter grazing would not be a possibility if we did not have surplus pasture to set aside for stockpiling and renovation. With over twenty acres of somewhat productive grassland available for four horses, the savings in feed barely offsets the property taxes on the land. On the other hand, this pasture-extensive system makes it possible to graze the work force year round weather as illustrated in the Pasture Map for the hot, dry growing season of 2005.

A few reservations about our year round approach to grazing are in order before we conclude this free ranging column on overwintering work animals. Although we rely heavily on stockpiling grass to extend the grazing season, this practice creates an opening for certain kinds of weeds to get established due to the lack of regular mowing and grazing. Also, pasturing almost the whole farm annually to ensure enough fresh forage for the entire year does not provide for a break in the buildup of pasture parasites, and consequently may require more frequent worming of the livestock.

As for pasture abuse from heavy hoof traffic, we must admit that in wet weather the horses will destroy the sod in the temporary pasture lanes crossing the steeper parts of the sidehill. For this reason, we try to change the placement of the lanes several times a year.

Above and beyond these site specific considerations, we hope that CQ readers realize that the Kidwells’ and Nordells’ overwintering strategies are just two of many possible solutions to finding the right balance between horse health, pasture management and manure conservation. For example, pasturing the horses 24 hours a day, every day of the year, except when in harness, might represent the healthiest alternative for the animals while promising the greatest savings in feed and labor. However, this 100% pasture based schedule could prove to be less convenient for working the horses on a regular basis than a daily stabling routine. And this option would definitely reduce the amount of well-bedded manure collected for fertilizing the crops or renovating rundown parts of the permanent pasture.