Forecasting Phil and Real Forage Management MilestoneAccording to CBS, Pennsylvania’s most famous groundhog emerged from his burrow on a cold Feb. 2 morning and saw his shadow. Through the help of a human interpreter, Phil declared that there would be six more weeks of winter. Punxsutawney Phil made his prediction as an intense blast of wintery weather wrought havoc as far south as Tennessee. At the same time, the Northeast was bracing for a dangerous mega-chill.

Even on Groundhog Day, air in that Pennsylvania town was cold enough for faint clouds of steam to be puffed from the roly-poly rodent’s nostrils. Within 48 hours, the promised mass of frigid air hit the Quaker State and the rest of the Northeast. Our home’s remote-sensing thermometer in downtown Hartwick, NY, indicated -16º. It was likely a little colder than that. Hopefully, it turns out to be the coldest day of this winter.

Huge crowds of human guests gathered that Thursday at Gobbler’s Knob, PA. According to the CBS reporter, “Members of Punxsutawney Phil’s ‘Inner Circle’ summoned him from his tree stump at dawn to learn if he has seen his shadow – and they say he did. According to folklore, if he sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, spring comes early.”

The annual event in Punxsutawney originated from a German legend about a furry rodent. A little bit of trivia pertaining to Phil is in order. The word “woodchuck” is an English corruption of the Algonquin word “otchek” (which actually translates to fisher or marten). Woodchucks (also called groundhogs) zoologically belong to genus Marmota (marmot in regular English). In Germany, where the forecasting legend originated, “Murmel” in German (pretty close to our common English term) is what they call woodchucks.

According to records dating back to 1887, Phil has made winter predictions more than 100 times. Inner Circle organizers said that 10 years were lost because no records were kept. The 2022 forecast called for six more weeks of winter, as did 2021. On the CBS video, viewers saw an Inner Circle spokesperson (wearing a formal top hat) reach into Phil’s den and grab a scroll allegedly written by the rodent. The human read the document as follows: “No matter how you measure, it’s six weeks more of winter.” The crowd cheered.

Over the last decade, Phil’s forecast has been correct four out of 10 times. Just how accurate Phil’s prophecy is in terms of practical matters – like when legumes can be frost seeded – is debatable. Perhaps a more meaningful date, agriculturally, is the day before Groundhog Day. Old-timers believed that as of Feb. 1 livestock farmers should still have half of their starting winter’s hay inventory left. Most of those old-timers began grazing programs early in May. At most Northeast locations, if cattle started grazing earlier than that, with no supplemental human-harvested forages, there was a good chance that paddocks would be overgrazed unless pastures were super-abundant. This meant that the recovery period for the sites in question would be longer than desired.

Paddocks shouldn’t be grazed any shorter than a four-inch height. When forages become that short, there’d better be other paddocks with a lot more chow to move livestock to. If we respect this height minimum, recovery period shouldn’t run more than three to four weeks, assuming soil fertility and moisture are not limiting. Interestingly, that four-inch minimum height (according to many deep-thinking agronomists) applies to the stand health of perennial crops and re-growing winter annuals as well as millets, sorghums and sudangrasses.

In worst case scenarios – ones in which forage inventories on Feb. 1 are much less than half of what the farmer had on Halloween – one or both of two things usually takes place. First, pastures start getting grazed prematurely and/or aggressively. This 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 grazing ruminants, their owner ends up buying hay at a time well past the point when good supplies of “milky” hay were still available. Learned grazing experts can show that supplementing purchased hay to grazing cattle – rather than burning out overly short swards – will trigger a four-fold return on investment in terms of harvestable forage later in the grazing season.

Even if the coldest day of winter is past, we can still put to good use whatever lingering cold weather remains. Many dairy persons may own or have access to some dry, fair quality, so-called “heifer/dry cow hay.” Why would this hay be good for milking cows? A 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 voraciously chowing down forages in extra cold weather, I explain that cattle (and sheep and goats) are basically ruminating furnaces. Cold weather is the best time to feed more fibrous, lower-energy feed to ruminants. If they acquire warmth from this fiber, this means they’ll be tapping into less energy otherwise destined to support milk production. With these lower quality roughages, we’re smart to test them to verify their protein and mineral status.

Further proof of the tightness of the 2023 winter local hay situation is anecdotal, though I believe valid: The number of ads offering hay for sale in Country Folks this year is about one-third of what it was 12 months ago. We can thank puny, drought-stressed, second cuttings last May and June for that.

A little-known method for stretching forages comes from feeding monensin to lactating dairy cows, a practice which was approved by the FDA 20-plus years ago. Monensin improves feed efficiency, allowing cows to make the same milk while consuming less feed. Or sometimes the cows on monensin eat the same amount of feed and just give more milk – kind of a win-win situation.