by Troy Bishopp
WEST WINFIELD, NY — “If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed, the vision pulls you,” said Steve Jobs.
The vision of saving money by grazing “winter forages” is a pursuit farmers Edmund and Garth Brown are always tinkering with. But grazing the perceived tropical plant, bamboo, really? Is there any merit?
“We think there are possibilities. Winter feed is the single largest expense when it comes to keeping ruminants. Every day not feeding hay means more money in our pockets. It deserves a looksee,” said the brothers, who with their wives and children founded Cairncrest Farm in 2010 which is devoted to producing exceptional meat in an environmentally sound manner.
During the growing season the farm’s beef and sheep are rotationally grazed with daily moves to fresh pasture. In the winter, hay and baleage purchased from neighbors keep the animals fed. In an effort to reduce the number of days on hay they started an experimental planting of bamboo in 2016.
Why Bamboo? “Several years ago while brainstorming on the topic of winter grazing Garth thought of bamboo. It’s a grass.” According to the American Bamboo Society (www.bamboo.org), “Bamboo is a group of perennial evergreens in the true grass family, Poaceae. Bamboos are some of the fastest growing plants in the world. They are capable of growing 20 inches or more per day due to a unique rhizome-dependent system. However, the growth rate is dependent on local soil and climatic conditions. Bamboo can also play an important role in livestock management, wildlife management, erosion control, windbreaks, nutrient management, and waste management.”
“We thought of bamboo as a possible winter stockpile forage. Our thinking went like this; woody stems to hold the leaves aloft would keep most of the potential feed available even in very deep or crusted snow. Some types of bamboo are evergreen even down to temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Bamboo is widely used as a feed in other parts of the world and early settlers in North America eradicated large groves of the native “river cane” with their cattle and hogs; claiming it was a feed par excellence,” said Edmund.
“Most of the interesting research papers I dug up were from the 1950s,” said Brown. “It seems likely that nobody has gotten around to trying bamboo as a stockpiled forage because of very high establishment costs, insufficient research on its feed value, unknown possible yield of forage/acre and non-existent information about how best to manage livestock within the grove of plants. That many unknowns mean there is a lot of room for experimentation.”
“Many people we’ve shared the idea with express concern about how ‘invasive’ bamboos are. This is not a concern for us because unlike all the other Eurasian pasture plants we encourage in our pastures (clovers, orchard grass, etc.), bamboo does not spread by seed. To eliminate a clump all it would take is intentional overgrazing. Put livestock on during the shooting season and bamboo will run out of gas pretty quickly. Without a good long rest period (months or more) the stand will not persist under grazing/browsing pressure,” emphasized Brown.
Edmund has chronicled his initial experience of establishment in an article he wrote for OnPasture.com . The farm located solidly in a zone 4 growing area, can test even the most hardy bamboo species. Phyllostachus bissettii was the best variety tested so far, according to Brown. In his slowly proliferating 30’ x 100’ forage plot along a stream intermixed with other planted riparian trees and shrubs, the canes are yielding well over 3 1/2 tons of dry matter, of 16 percent protein forage and a relative feed value (RFV) of 106 in December. A good feed for feeding their sheep flock.
Recently during a windy, snowstorm event, we got to evaluate the grazing project ahead of a pasture walk. It was noted that the unexpected two nights of below zero weather on Nov. 22 and 23, took its toll on some plants. It might be its downfall for deep into winter grazing. However, since the canes were so thick and tall they created grazing “pockets” under the snow where the leaves were of excellent quality. It was determined that sheep or goats would make a better fit since they could effectively pick the leaves and do less trampling than cows.
“The most significant possible stumbling block we have yet to quantify is whether bamboo can yield enough tons of forage per acre of winter grazing days to be worth growing, instead of other grasses or annual forages,” said Brown. “Hay and standing bamboo forage are not precisely equivalent, but for my purposes they are close enough to draw meaningful conclusions. Both will keep my animals fed through the winter. If I can get a roughly equivalent yield per acre per year, I’ll be many dollars ahead.”
One thing is certain, as he looks out over local fallowed fields and corn stubble; there is plenty of room for further experimentation in saving money on winter feed costs.