We love grass...or at least our cows do.
We think green grass is the key to most of our livestock problems. Cattle stay healthier on it, they better endure winter’s challenges, and they’re happier. In fact, we’re not really cattle producers…we’re grass farmers. And luckily, Eldon Farms is blessed with a whole lot of grass. Throughout the seasons, our hills are covered with fescue, orchard grass, bluegrass, red and white clover, switchgrass, and an abundance of other species. We do have a summer and winter slump to deal with, but our cool season grasses grow very efficiently and we have a longer than average growing season. Most of our efforts are aimed at either growing better forage or utilizing it in a better way. And we bet you thought you were going to be reading about cattle!
Every year, we try to grow as much forage as possible, then use our cows to harvest it. Since the amount of forage we end up with varies with rainfall, temperatures, and good old-fashioned luck (shout out to farmers everywhere!), the number of animals we have on hand varies as well. We’ve built our livestock program around this idea that our cattle stock should match the forage availability on our land.
When the fall rains of September hit and our cool season grasses come out of their summer dormancy, we hope and pray that they will be enough to produce an abundant crop of grass. There are those who argue that hope is not a strategy, but we accept what all farmers before us have, and admit that we cannot control the weather, even though we really wish we could. We save all that we can from this fall growth by simply not allowing the cattle to access certain fields. In this instance, the grass truly is greener on the other side….
When November rolls around and we’ve weaned our calves, we make note of which cows are pregnant, how much hay we have on hand, and how much forage we’ve grown. Then we match our feed to our cattle stock, and sell the surplus. Since our forage yield varies year to year, so does our cattle stock. When we have abundant forage, we keep most of our animals. And when forage is tight, we sell them all save for the pregnant cows and breeding bulls. We allow the land to dictate how much it can support and then we proceed accordingly.
Which works out flawlessly as long as winter doesn’t produce any surprises. But as we all know, that isn’t something that we can bank on here in Virginia. We’ve come to expect the unexpected, and remain ready to sell animals quickly if winter weather decides to ruin our standing grass fields. Our backup plans often help mitigate the inherent risks of an agricultural operation. But sometimes they don’t, and we face a tough season, or a tough year right alongside our Rappahannock neighbors.
But spring always comes, bringing happier cattle, new calves, nursing mothers, and bulls ready for another round of breeding. It’s truly a magical time on the farm, although it makes for some insanely long hours for our cattle guys. Birth is no respecter of sleep schedules.
Then the Virginia summer heat descends, and seed heads become dry and brown, and we market all non-breeding cattle. And of course, we make hay while the summer sun shines. There are definitely differing opinions about hay feeding here in Rappahannock County. At Eldon, we have a pretty shrug-our-shoulders attitude towards it. If it makes sense to store hay, we do. If it doesn’t, then we don’t. We believe strongly in doing what’s best for our operation and fully support everyone else doing the same. Most of our forage is Kentucky 31 tall fescue, which has a bad rap for it’s endophyte toxicity. We recognize the problems it brings, but also acknowledge its benefits. We believe it’s easier and more important to change the cattle than to change the grass. We’re constantly looking for genetics that can handle the challenges of grazing fescue grass in Virginia and thrive on it.
Like we said, we’re grass farmers. And we’re always striving to make sure the grass on the other side of the fence stays greener.