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Grinding Feed: A Regular Winter Farm Chore

March 6, 2012

If feeding farm animals is not your primary occupation, you might have numerous conceptions about what exactly farm animals eat. If you have children, or if you live near a farm, you might invoke images of the farmer’s wife lovingly feeding chickens and pigs scraps of vegetables, or the farmer giving each cow her own bucket of “dinner.” Or maybe depictions of tubes pumping corn syrup filled with clumps of corn and antibiotics float through your mind, or conversely, you might imagine a cow eating fresh, green grass all year round. Well, probably in many different settings some combination of these varieties of feeding experiences are true. But they all vary based on the size of the farm, the breed of the bovine, and the philosophical and practical stance of the farmer. Just as farmers put effort into feeding themselves, they must put effort into feeding their flocks and herds. This farmer learned from his father and grandfather a traditional method of growing as much as possible on the farm to feed the animals, where sweat equity stretches much further than a dollar in a local feed store.

Recently, our good friend Amber Stanley who is a first grade teacher in the Hawaiian public school system was teaching her students about patterns in nature and how we make decisions based on such patterns. As a class project, she had her students write a letter to Farmer Jason and Mrs. Harrigan, asking us about our patterns in nature (and, of course, asking us if we could come visit Hawaii, to which we replied with all of our hearts, we would love to). It was in that moment that I realized that children who don’t grow up in a four-season climate might not know where hay comes from! And then I asked myself how many of us know where hay comes from, and how many people know what our cows eat! Well, as you may well be aware, hay is tall, tall grass that has grown up in a pasture and been cut, run into long rows, and left there to dry. Then a hay-baler is taken over the rows of dried grass and shapes them into either square or round bales. But like me, you may not have known that a lot goes into the process of planning for, making, storing and feeding hay. You may not have known that in the late spring, a farmer often spreads a bunch of manure over his hay field in order to bring rich nutrients to the soil. You may not know that there are certain kinds of grasses that make better hay, and that is more appreciated by the bovine species. Clover makes a nice addition to a hay field, while certain “weed grasses” are extremely disdained by farmers who fight them off. After the first “cutting” of hay in May or June, depending on the weather that year, there may be a second summer cutting and if we are blessed, a third to follow near fall. In crazy years, like this past year, there are occasional deep fall cuttings, although as you can imagine these may not be as good as earlier ones. After all of the cuttings, the hay is stacked meticulously in the dark dryness of the barn, in a tight cross-hatched pattern. These bales will be pulled, piece by piece, and fed to cows in the dead of winter when the grass is either frozen, covered in snow, or bare and yellowish. It’s funny how a cow will generally always choose fresh green grass over hay, spending her day head-down moving slowly over the pasture like a gentle wave on a pond. But in the winter, when we set the truck in low gear and let it drift over the hill while we cut bales off the back in a steady stream, the cows are more like tidal waves rushing the shore, trampling in delight of the dried grass that speaks of some kind of memory of spring and summer.

In addition to making hay, and this farm makes a lot of hay, with hay stacked from previous years in multiple barns across the farm and enough to sell to a few other farms if they were in need, Farmer Jason as Mrs. Stanley’s first grade class affectionately knows him grinds feed for his calves. Now what does grinding feed entail? Well, first it begins with growing feed corn. In the fall, corn is harvested off the stalks—stalks which are then baled into big round bales of “fodder” used to bed the barns in the winter—and stored in a “grain bin,” or essentially a big section of a barn or building, to be used throughout the winter. Jason will take this corn, on the cob, and grind it whole (keeping the cob for fiber) with some high-protein soybean meal, the only part of their feed that isn’t grown on the farm. To do so he uses a grinder-mixer machine, which you will see below, which is run by the engine of the tractor it is hooked too. He will then take this ground-up corn and soy feed mix and deposit it into a golden pyramid on the floor of the barn to be scooped down the chute to a grain cart and fed to calves in their last days or months on the farm, after being weaned from their mothers and before going to market. Other than the calves, generally only mothers who have had some problem with their calf or their health otherwise will be brought into the barn and grain-fed. Otherwise, we don’t let on to the grass-lovers that their offspring get access to grain in the barn.

Below are photos taken as best as possible for a person who is also supposed to be helping. It usually takes about an hour, start to finish, to grind feed, a load which will last a couple of weeks in addition to their hay, depending on the number of calves in the barn at a given time.

Getting the tractor out of the barn to set up

Using the tractor to pull the "gravity wagon" to the grinder-mixer machine. The grinder-mixer machine (red) will hook to the large tractor and run off of its engine. The gravity wagon (grey) will be filled with whole corn from the "corn crib" then used to feed that corn into the mouth of the grinder mixer. (Farm Trivia Question: How many tractors does it take to grind feed for some calves in a barn? Answer: As many as one man can manage to drive at once.)

After all tractors and wagons and machines are in place, Jason feeds whole corn into the grinder-mixer by lifting the gate of the gravity wagon with the wheel. The corn, harvested on the farm earlier that year, is ground whole with the cob included for extra fiber. It is, well, ground and mixed, along with high-protein soybean meal.

Jason's very official, very organized note to himself about his ingredient percentages (peeling off the side of the grinder-mixer machine...)


Corn caving in to gravity (hence the brilliant name, gravity wagon...)

Can you see what shot out of the gravity wagon and dashed by Jason's boot?

Yep! A happy, little, full mouse, who'd taken up residence amidst an eternal supply of corn (I'm sure his state of 'happy' and 'full' were quickly transformed to bewildered and frightened with the loud, crunching sound of the grinder-mixer and the up-rooting from his blissful abode...)

Shaking the last corn out of the wagon

When the gravity wagon is emptied, we are still in need of a bit more corn. What do we do? We opt for the man (and wo-) power rather than the tractor power, and scoop it in shovel load by shovel load (thank you, oh corn, for beefing up my bitty biceps...bit by bit).

The farmer taking a break between scoops to breath in the earthy, moist air. (Or, the farmer making a hilarious face in great efforts to thwart my natural photographic endeavors, with little idea that the image would actually receive a public audience...)

This is what a corn grain bin looks like up close! A mountain of corn! Wile loves to chase his occasional thrown corn cob...but let's just say that when I chucked it onto this heap, he was smart enough not to even give it a second glance...

Jason enjoying a corny snack

Jason enjoying his corny joke...

Now for the depositing of the golden pyramid into the barn. Jason drives the tractor and grinder-mixer into the top part of the barn, where he will pile high the ground feed onto the floor of the barn next to a chute that goes down to a grain cart below that is pushed over to the calves' feeding alley.

Backing the grinder-mixer back into the shed and putting the barrage of tractors away (for the moment)

Backing into tight spaces is apparently this man's specialty (no wonder he was such a stellar driver in a bulky service truck in New York City, whipping through tunnels, over bridges, and across multiple lanes of traffic! Who knew that farming skills could translate to city driving?)

Finished! Good gracious folks, we're finished! (well, finished one hour of our approximate 10 hours of our normal saturday chores. But 1/10th of the way finished should be celebrated too, right?)

Corn on the corn crib floor. I hope you now know a little bit more about how one farmer goes about grinding feed for his weaned calves!

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