Yes folks, it’s winter- but here in Western Washington, spring seems to begin. This is part of that secret world we west slope dwellers prefer everyone else outside The Pacific Northwest didn’t know- we’re a truly temperate climate! The end of fall brought temperatures maintaining the 20s for about a week, but the freeze quickly thawed, and now it’s a balmy 47 with light rain and grey skies. That’s a heavenly winter season norm, and the grass will keep growing.
As a farmer, I thrive in wet warm temperatures, though such cultivation comforts come with other struggles, like mold and hoof rot. Muck is a constant companion in the barn yard. One of my house plants just showcased a strange mold growing on the surface of the potted soil. I’ve cranked up the wood stove, not to keep us warm, so much as dry in this rain-forest.
This year, I hatched an experiment of winter chicks, which have thrived quite well in our crisp fall days. I’ve been impressed with their hardiness, and the subsequent bulk they have gained with forage and organic starter feed. Last week, part of the young flock was moved into the coop with our layer hens. Their free range diet across the landscape includes grass, herbs, insects, and other microscopic creatures which enrich the birds’ eggs. The pasture is still green, even after heavy frosts, which began on the last day of September this year (2019). Our sheep just had two sunny days grazing, in early December. In New England, The Rocky Mountains, and central Great Plains, winters are brutal, often windy and well below freezing. Here in Western Washington, being outside in a cotton long sleeve t-shirt and jeans at the start of winter is a real treat- not to mention a lack of pesky frost-bite, frozen water buckets, and snow.
Winter does signal a slowing down in production. Our hens are laying at about 40% normal rate, so we’re averaging 1/2 dz. each day. With the introduction of more layers, we hope to operate in future at a dz. each day in winter, for neighborhood orders, and we’ll sell our warm month production to Cascadia Cooperative Farms. The sheep keep eating, putting weight on, and are hopefully also growing lambs in their bellies. It’s amazing to me that during winter, most animals in the grazing world are gestating next year’s offspring. They have great fresh food, and additional alfalfa hay in the barn on colder or wetter evenings.
Both my goats and sheep are expected to produce a “crop” of young, and need lots of good hay, pasture time, and other minerals to develop healthy babies. Evergreen pasture helps a lot with keeping pregnant stock fed, but supplements are still necessary- including trace minerals like iron, copper, and iodine. Western Washington soil is low in these important inputs, so a “range block” sits in each stall of my barn for both sheep and goats. Note- sheep cannot have copper, where as goats can’t live without it, so the mineral blocks of each animal should be matched appropriately. A soil sample from your pasture sent in for analysis will tell you what you’re short on, and that can change from field to field so take many samples if you can.
Fighting muck in temperate climate is never done. Anyone with livestock in wet weather can tell you about how hard it is to keep the ground from eroding into a mud pit. Some of the ways we cope at EEC Forest Stewardship include resting pastures by fencing them off. This is important, especially in winter, and will pay back in spades once the ground is solid again in warmer months. Managing stock around the barnyard is crucial to preventing much buildup. I use hog fencing to direct animals along corridors from the barn to pasture space, making sure to rotate access fequently to prevent degradation. Right now the coop space looks wretched, but that’s due mostly in part to the cedar grove that was recently harvested. Cedars don’t let other under-story plants establish easily, and even after a spring and fall seeding, we’re still waiting for more breakdown of the tree resins in the soil. The picture above shows that bald spot by the stumps.
Some farms have what they call “sacrifice space” where animals are confined to a smaller paddock to save the greater pasture space beyond. I’ve put my sheep in a smaller pen space this winter, but it’s still managed to keep grass on the ground. I put the sheep in their stalls frequently in winter to prevent erosion in the paddock. I’ve also got enough pasture space to accommodate the sheep, even in winter. Sheep are far less destructive on the soil compared to horses or cattle. It’s food for thought when you are thinking about stock in wet spaces. The larger the animal the heavier the impact on the land. Small stock are light footed, and can move over wet ground without sinking in. In this evergreen environment, smaller is better. I’ve already written about horse impacts on the land in an earlier article, but I will reiterate- western Washington is NOT a horse friendly environment for most of the year.
Another important aspect of having a temperate winter is all the water. Landscapes in Western Washington change dramatically in winter. While there is little snow in the lowlands, frequent flooding and swamped ground abound. A pasture which serves beautifully in summer can turn into a standing lake through the wet winter months. Lazy brooks turn into raging streams, and dirt roads become wallows. Access to certain parts of the farm in winter are blocked off, and will not be solid again till summer. If you own land in the area, take time to study the seasonal changes, mapping wet spots in winter so you don’t end up planting them with intolerant species. Take careful planning in structure placement, choosing the high ground whenever possible.
Where there is no ice, there is mold, and it will spread into your home if you don’t keep the environment dry. My truck sat for a week this winter while I was on a trip. When I got home I discovered a wet blanket had been left in the dog kennel, inviting mildew and the smell of molding cotton in my vehicle. I’m sill blasting the hot air every time I drive around, and the smell is almost gone. Know that temperate wet weather is a thriving environment for pathogens, fungus, and decomposition- and it shows up where you least want it, from leaf mold in the garden, to thrush in livestock’s hooves. Bugs also manage to stay alive and active through the winter here, so keep the compost covered and mind your greenhouse overwintered vegetation. Slugs do go dormant, but scale, flies, and gnats live on, and will infest where they can.
With all the struggles facing us here in Western Washington, I would still pick here above all other places I’ve lived in The US as home. It’s amazing to spend a late December day happily romping on a beach with the pup. I can gaze far off into the distance and see the snow covered peaks of the peninsula and feel such gratitude for our Pacific temperate zone. The Puget Sound Lowland remains green and vibrant, with many winter flowers blooming right along the cost. Even here in the hills, Hazel catkins are coming on, and blackberry buds sprout from entangled briar patches across the landscape. The rain keeps coming, but it brings warmer temperatures, moisture to the soil and good drinks for all the large trees, wetlands, and the fauna within. What a magical place to live and grow!