Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania’s most famous resident is a groundhog (or woodchuck) named Phil. This medium-sized rodent (beavers being much bigger rodents) allegedly predicts the weather annually on Groundhog Day (Feb. 2). If Phil sees his shadow, we Northeasterners are stuck with six more weeks of winter. However, if he doesn’t see his shadow, legend has it that we can expect an early spring and warmer weather soon. This last thought is very appealing, since the temperature in much of Central New York took most of today (Monday) to get up to zero Fahrenheit.
It is uncertain how a groundhog got the role of predicting weather, but a woodchuck named Phil has been participating in Groundhog Day since 1886. Since woodchucks are mortal, there have been — by a semi-official count — about 40 other Phils. Phil’s hometown’s name was derived from a Native American word for sand flies, a gnat-like insect that is abundant in that part of Northwest PA. It wasn’t much of a stretch for European immigrants and their descendants to mold the name into “town of the ponkies”. I have heard these insects called “punkies”. Phil’s town boasts about 6,300 human residents also.
Just how reliable is Phil’s wisdom in determining when legumes can be frost-seeded is up for debate. Perhaps a much more meaningful date, agriculturally, is the day before Groundhog Day. Old-timers firmly believed that as of Feb. 1, livestock farmers should still have half of their starting winter’s hay inventory left. And a lot of these old-timers began grazing programs in early May. If cattle started grazing with no supplemental human-harvested forage — unless pastures were super-abundant — there was a good chance that pastures would be over-grazed. This meant that the recovery period of the paddocks in question would be longer than desired.
How close to the ground can paddocks be safely grazed? Rock bottom minimum height would be 3.5 inches. This means that if one paddock is grazed almost down to that height, there had better be other paddocks with a lot more chow for the animals to relocate to. If we respect this height minimum, recovery period shouldn’t run more than about 3-4 weeks — assuming soil fertility and moisture are not limiting. Interestingly, that 3.5 inch minimum height — according to Certified Crop Advisor Tom Kilcer — applies to benefiting perennial crops, regrowing winter annuals, as well as millets and sorghums. Kilcer, who manages field operations at the Cornell Valatie Research Farm (Columbia County, NY), states that leaving at least a 3.5 inch stubble height (after mowing) leaves enough green material behind to jump start photosynthesis for stand regrowth.
In a worse case scenario — one in which harvested forage reserves on Feb. 1 are much less than half the starting roughage inventory of Halloween — one or both of two things usually takes place. First, pastures start getting grazed prematurely and aggressively. This definitely lengthens the recovery time for most forage species, with some species recovering poorly, if at all. Second, in order for pastures to not be ravaged by moo-ing mobs, their owner ends up buying hay — at a time of year well past the point when most of the “milky” hay was still available.
It’s possible to put this cold weather (as I write, super cold weather) to work for us. Many dairy persons may own, or have access to, some dry, fair quality so-called heifer/dry cow hay. Why is this a good thing for milking cows? A real-life benefit of very cold weather is that it’s a good time to feed some of your lower quality roughages to cattle. When folks complain about cows really chowing down forage in extra cold weather, I explain that bovines are effectively ruminating furnaces. I’ve always believed that cold weather is the best time to feed more fibrous, lower energy, roughage to ruminants. If they can acquire warmth from this fiber, this means they’ll be tapping into less energy destined to support milk production. To address the body-warming properties of lower quality feeds, we refer to 1959 Edition of Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding. There Professor Frank B. Morrison addressed the subject of heat increment. He wrote that it’s easy to envision the energy required by jaws chewing food. Less visible are the workings of digestive juices, plus the increased work of the heart and lungs during digestion.
Rumination is a dynamic process. Quoting Morrison, “There are losses of energy through heat produced through the microbial action upon carbohydrates. The energy expended in all these processes takes the form of heat, and it may help warm the body, if sufficient heat is not being produced elsewhere in the body.” Thus scientists (like Morrison) use the term “heat increment” (HI) to include the energy losses associated with the consumption and metabolizing of food. Such losses of energy through HI are much greater with fibrous foods like roughages, than with grain and other lower fiber concentrates. Morrison also wrote: “About 33 percent of the energy in the nutrients digested from corn grain is used up in this work of digestion, while this loss is approximately 60 percent in the case of wheat straw.” These are extreme examples of different feedstuffs, but they help us visualize how mammals with a digestive system created to process vegetative materials (rather than seeds) can generate lots of heat. Cows, sheep, and goats, even deer all with four stomachs fall in this last category: ruminants.
Another plus for dry “heifer” hay is absorbing excess moisture from overly damp baleage and haylage. During most of growing season 2018, getting 36-48 hours of non-rainy weather — with which to dry hay crop — was quite a challenge. It’s easy to show that a cow wants her total diet moisture level to stay under 50 percent. When baleage, haylage, and corn or sorghum silage are 60-65 percent moisture, the numbers clearly are posing a challenge. Coarsely chopping dry hay and adding such to the total mixed ration helps dry it up — and warm it up.