Who Can Go The Longest Without Feeding Hay?


A game that pasture farmers like to play is seeing how long they can keep their livestock grazing in winter without feeding any hay or grain. I have a feeling that if cows and sheep had the right of suffrage, they would vote this sport off the farm. They would rather loll in the barn in winter chewing on good clover hay than nosing under two inches of snow for half-frozen fescue.

Nevertheless, they will graze on winter grasses and rather dead clover if the snow isn’t too deep. Cornell experimenters, among others, say the foliage is nutritious enough. My sheep at this very moment in December seem to be quite content to eat red clover with a dusting of snow on it. Some of the clover is brown and gone to seed since October; some of it, from this year’s seeding, is still green in spite of 25 degree weather. Every day the sheep can graze without hay is money in the bank. (Actually, that expression is obsolete. Money in the bank today is worth about as much as a patch of dead thistles.)

Some of the best graziers in America are lawn manicurists who may have never seen a grazing animal. As far north as Cleveland, Ohio, where I often go visiting, I see grass in December almost as green as it was in May. When I tell the proprietors of these mini-meadows that they should be raising sheep, especially now when the price of lamb is so high only pro-sports players and oil executives can afford to eat it, they don’t look quite as strangely at me as they used to. Chickens, which would love to graze that grass, are once again taking their rightful place in the backyards of America, and it is only a matter of time before sheep will join them.

The champion grazier of winter pasturing, so far as I know right now, is a rancher, the class of farmer that I jokingly maintain knows less about grass than the suburbanite. His name is Oren Long and he farms in Kansas. Oren and I go back a long way and we call each other occasionally to see if the other is still alive. Oren wins the don’t-feed-hay-until-you-have-to contest because he hasn’t been feeding any. He grazes all winter. The late Bob Evans of fast food sausage fame, who used to call me and hammer away about the advantages of year-round grazing, was the premier pioneer of pasture farming and he would be mighty proud of Oren. Oren’s beef cows graze fescue, red clover and assorted other grasses and weeds all winter. The most amazing part, to me, is not that he hasn’t been feeding any hay, but that by properly rotating the grazing so that half of the red clover acreage can go to seed before grazing it, he hasn’t had to do any seeding either. The cattle tramp the seeds into good contact with the soil as they graze and in that way do the annual seeding necessary to maintain red clover. They don’t charge Oren a cent.

“It isn’t really difficult to do what we’re doing,” he says. “But I have a hard time convincing other farmers that it works. We’ve all grown up out here in Kansas believing that you just have to have hay for cattle in the winter time. It is sort of like a religious belief.”

Ralph Rice, whom I call Superfarmer, sends me just today a photo of his sheep grazing snowy pastures on Dec. 3. What is remarkable about Ralph’s winter grazing is that he farms in northeastern Ohio where if you went to church on Easter wearing snowshoes, just in case, hardly anyone would raise an eyebrow. I don’t think either Ralph or I could go all winter like Oren does. Our winter climate is not as open as in his part of northeastern Kansas. There are weeks here when the snow is a foot deep or glazed over with ice. Oren says his cattle can poke down through even an icy glaze to get grass. Maybe my sheep are big sissies but they haven’t shown an inclination to cooperate that way. Or maybe I am spoiling them. Brad, my brother-in-law, says humorously that after he breaks down and feeds his sheep good hay in December “you have to almost drag them out to the pasture.”

Oren does concede that even in Kansas, one should have some emergency hay on hand just in case a really awful blizzard occurs. Or for severe drouth times. Interestingly, his permanent pastures seem to hold up better during mild drouth periods than farmed soils. The buffalo knew that too.


I would lose the game also, being in Wisconsin. When I’m waiting for the pasture to grow, or in the fall, I stretch out the grazing by having the sheep in the yard, or using a sheep dog to take them to the woods and they find things to eat there. They will also clean up the garden for me after it’s done producing for the year. I enjoyed your manure article- we have only a small farm but are definitely into composting from our sheep, chicken, duck and as much of the neighbors’ horse manure as they want to give us.

I would lose in your game every year! I live at 7300 ft in Colorado and I start feeding hay most years in October . My cows will work through 5 or 6 inches of snow and the horses will paw through 2 ft but we get a lot more than that! This year most of my fence posts are buried and I have some drifts 10 -15 ft high ! looks like I will be feeding into May this year again

Hi Gene,
John Mesko here from Minnesota via Purdue Extension… I’m late to the party on this post, but as usual, you’re on target. Our sheep prefer the grass if they can get to it.

We’ve had 34 inches of snow this year, which is alot even for us. I’ve been reading Stockman’s Grass Farmer for years, and occasionally they have a northern grazier in there talking about year ’round grazing, but as a grazier myself, I don’t see it happening this far north. Believe me, I’d love to do it.

Glad to see you are blogging, and I need to become a regular.


i’m out. silly goats.. i think Jan and I have related goats. nary a hoof will be set in the snow. but all the hay gets used – what the goats throw on the ground the ducks and clucks take up.

say, Bud… I’ll take a truckload of whatcha got. be quite a drive tho as i’m over here by Gene

In Western Oregon there is so much rain this time of year that small pastures can quickly become a muddy mess, especially where the animals go into the barn.
At the same time it is often warm enough that the grass grows through much of the winter and people tend to seriously overgraze in times of economic difficulty.
There are very few people who still have a couple cows so it is mostly sales to horse ladies. Hay sales are very slow right now. I think a lot of people are still using their pastures and there was a lot of not-very-good hay made this summer.
I estimate that I need $95 per ton at the minimum to break even on pasture hay if I count the price of fertilizer, fuel, twine, rent, labor, and only a 2.5 ton per acre yield. I’ve been selling pickup loads for $120/ton and have a lot of repeat customers. It is drawing in the new customers that is hard to do.
Just some info from the other side of the country…

My goats make it through the entire winter here in zone 7 North Carolina (where it was 9 degrees one morning earlier this week) on next to nothing, barely 1 square bale per goat per winter. They’re partly purebred Saanen and partly mixed dairy breeds. I had a couple Barbados blackbelly sheep for a couple winters that made those goats look like hay gluttons — the only time I ever fed them any hay at all was when the snow was iced over hard, and they weren’t even eating the bark off my trees — and then they’d drop nice, healthy twins in late winter. My Jersey cows are quite the opposite, but I like having fresh milk even in the winter. My two cows and yearling heifer can go through a large round bale in a couple weeks, even while strip grazing stockpiled fescue.

Budd, hay in the barn is sure better than money in the bank right now. Where I’m at, you can get five bucks for a small bale, if its good hay. Where I’m at, you can maybe get one half of one percent interest on savings even if it’s good money.I agree with you; there are some mighty interesting farmers who comment on my nonsense.
Ian Graham, As you know,I am a bluegrass freak. Yes it will take over those bare spots given time, lime, and average good drainage. I get best results from planting in spring or fall especially when rain is frequent. I don’t have as much luck with winter broadcasting although it should work. Those bare spots are telling you something. Those tall cool season grasses look like they are producing more forage, but by the cow or sheep bite, a thick, low covering of bluegrass and white clover has more digestible forage in it than a bite of that taller crud. I’m in the minority on my negative attitude about tall grasses like orchardgrass. I got it from my daddy-in-law who despised the stuff almost as much as his cows did. It goes to seed too fast and after that it makes good termite feed. Yeah, yeah, there are new wonderful, magnificent improved varieties of orchardgrass always coming along which only proves that the older ones were termite food.
Jan Steinman, and here all along I was told that goats can get along fine on a pinch of salt, a handful of gravel and a length or two multiflora rose vine. Good grazing for goats, they tell me, is a pile of rocks.
Beth Greenwood and Auburn Meadow Farm. So true, good pasture is a journey.


Can hardly wait for the capital intensive farming paradigm to go the way of the dodo. We can revert back back to farming on the cheap again, and we’ll be the better for it.

I should have made it farmers. As in you, are all a bunch of interesting farmers.

This is all fine and good but I have 300 tons of hay in the barn waiting for someone to buy it, and I don’t need no pasture advocates driving down my business!!!
Enjoying your posts. Kind of stumbled upon you by accident. You are the farmer I aspire to be!

Cows, sheep… sure, force those lazy ingrates to work for their living!

But goats are another matter entirely.

Our Nubians are so allergic to atmospheric moisture that they head for the barn if they see a cloud in the sky. Nubians were bred in the desert, and I keep threatening them with replacement with Oberhasli or some other goat breed that come from a wetter climate, but they don’t listen — they just stand under the awning and scream until someone takes pity and brings them some hay.

I’m thinking about going into “lazy farmer mode” in the spring if our hay runs out — and we’ve used a third of it already this year. But they’ll be in the second half of pregnancy then, and like humans proclaim about their children, I can’t bear the thought of stunting future generations by not buying them the latest video game or iPhone app. (Unless, of course, it means using up all the resources those future generations will need to survive, like oil, water, and clean air… 🙂

Hi Gene, been out of touch for a while. It’s been below freezing here in S ON for a couple of weeks now. I do have my small herd of Canadian Linebacks out on the pasture, which is pretty much grazed right to the texture of a putting green. I’m following Contrary Farmer/All Flesh as best I can. All paddocks are open; they go where they like. I have three haystacks in different fields, they’re not touching them much, tho they cculd. I lifted the woven wire fence enclosure on one yesterday to see if they’ll get the hint. I don’t bring them to the barn corral this year cuz there are three heifer calves that still want to suckle. I don’t wean till 6 months or so; it’s been three weeks, the cows will still let ’em latch on, I tested that last week. So I have a watering headache, no running water in the pastures, the pond is froze over and I can’t bring em to the barn where the milk cow mommas are. I’m hauling water, even if I’m not hauling hay!

Related to your post about self seeding clovers, I wonder if you could say more about seeding the bluegrass. after three years, the tall cool season grasses adn clovers are well rooted, great pasture really, but there is lots of space between the plants, no sod. that’s were the KB is supposed to come it, right? can it be frost seeded? is there a no-no time of year to not seed KB?

And finally, to tag on this post, re corn: as you know I did the plant by hand, pick by hand gig this year on my acre of open pollinated field corn. Got it in a crib outside, all 60 cu ft of it, cobs that is. Now, how to calculate bushels (shelled) from bushels on the cob? It’s a dumbass question, but all corn yields are quoted in bushels shelled per acre right?

best of the season,
Ian in Dundas ON

Great pasture is a journey…. My own desire to see them warm, dry and comfortable is a handicap for me. My cows think I’m running a B&B and I can only blame myself; it’s no coincidence so many cows are named Bossy!

And, my reward is the pleasure of cleaning those stalls afterward – some kind of gratitude!

Gene, it sounds to me as though your sheep are just doing what you do (smile)–they’re looking for the easiest way to get their food, and lolling in the barn being fed by us hard-working humans sounds good to them! I would lose the no-hay contest because we’re still fencing and renovating pastures so I can rotate stock the way you do. I don’t even have a lawn. The old orchard is being fenced this week for Katahdin sheep, and they’ll have some grazing since it’s so grown up. I doubt it will go until we have green grass again. But eventually we’ll get there. In the meantime, we’re seeding clover/pasture mix and letting them tromp it down and fertilize it for next year. And, in best lazy farmer tradition, since we’re feeding mixed clover and grass hay, there’s a lot of seed being spread wherever we scatter the hay, so next year we’ll have even better pastures. It’s a journey…

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