By Heather Retberg
The farm in July is full of anticipation and field observations. Now about 10 weeks into the growing season and regular paddock rotations, the animals are well into the routines of summer again. And, so, it must be said, are we. In our rotational grazing system, we move animals from one paddock to another in rhythm with the needs of the pasture and of the animals–sometimes leaving animals in one place longer to trample and fertilize more, other times, like now, moving them so quickly as possible through all the forage. The dairy cows have been ‘strip-grazing’, moving through small, sectioned strips of the pasture maximizing the use of the forage while concentrating their fertility in one area before moving on each morning and evening. Goats and chickens move twice a week, pigs are in the woods and need new paddocks only once every few weeks. The yearling calves, still a separate group from the mature herd, move twice a week, too. The meat birds move every day one ‘pen-length’ forward.
At this point in the season, shifting animals from the old spot to the new fresh paddock is a pure joy (barring mechanical difficulties). Each of these groups is tended by one or, sometimes, two of us, most of the time. When three or four of us show up, they know it’s time to move, and they are all anticipation. Whether goats, calves, cows or even the hens–birdbrains though they be–they line up on the fenceline just waiting for us to fence the new paddock already and let them into it. It’s too good. Seeing the ‘graze line’ can be equally rewarding, noting how the hens have done their ‘work’, thoroughly dispersing each cow-pie left behind to spread out the fertility, eliminating the insect pests, eating, trampling, and ‘re-seeding’ the grass seedheads, and evenly fertilizing an area. The goats are choosier, but have a delightful habit of devouring burdock and even browsing thistle! They clean up our marginal ‘buffer’ areas between woods and fields. The cows are the queens, of course, and get the prime pasture. By July, all of us are getting used to the orchestration of our summer dance through time and space, and the routine and the anticipation are grounded guideposts to farm days.
Even while we appreciate the summer routine, the farmers’ anticipation is a little different than the critters. We have fewer dairy products just now as we await calves from 3 cows all due in the coming weeks. It’s strange timing what with the peak of summer demand upon us, but, breeding and calving don’t always translate perfectly from the cow realms to the human realms, and now is such a time. In human terms, it means that we have 25-30 gallons less per week than usual. No small amount. The young heifer, Dandy, due first by our records, shows the least signs to date of pending labor, while Bonnie, Too and Mary are showing full udders and ripening each day. We expect calves this week, more milk and more cheeses and yogurts again in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, we’ve had great cow weather, cool breezes on sunny days, and our expectant mamas couldn’t look more queenly as the calving days approach.
And, then there is the wildlife on the farm, whose motions are so much less predictable than our farm critters and whose cycles we know less well. The wild turkeys have been moving through in flocks with little ones behind them. Oftentimes, they’ll take up and follow the cows in the rotation, serving the same function as our domestic hens, scratching up cow pies and eliminating parasites. Other times, they take up in the woods with the pigs, hopeful of leftover grain. This year, they’ve just been moving on through. The hawks and vultures have been regular fixtures this summer as the deer population collides with the travelers on the highway. And, this week, I was startled by a snapping turtle in front of the onion bed, just imperturbably laying her eggs, one small plop and clink at a time, until she buried them all up and quickly, yes, even for a turtle, quickly moved away again.
Wishing you wonder in observation, and plenty to anticipate.
Heather and Phil Retberg together with their three children run Quill’s End Farm, a 105-acre property in Penobscot that they bought in 2004. They use rotational grazing on their fifteen open acres and are renovating thirty more acres from woods to pasture to increase grazing for their pigs, grass-fed cattle, lambs, laying hens, and goats. Heather is Master of Halcyon Grange #345 and writes a newsletter for their farm’s buying clubs for farmers in her area and has generously given us permission to share some of her columns with Grangers throughout the state.
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