What We’ve Learned – Some Practical Stuff About Rye

I’ll admit – we actually don’t know what the heck we’re doing out here on the farm.  We’ve had to learn everything from scratch.  Before this, the only animals I ever had to take care of was a cat, some mosquito fish, and zebra finches.  I thought cucumbers grew in the winter.  It’s been a learning process of  many, many failures, and still continues.

Ever since the drought in Texas, Florida hay has been crazy expensive.  When we just had goats and one cow, it wasn’t such a big deal.  The goats still ate the oak and blackberries, which stay green over the winter, and one cow eats way less than eight (soon to be nine.  Chestnut is due tomorrow!).

Even with a little green stuff from the oaks and brambles, winter was still hard.  They didn’t get enough sugars for their rumen, and we started feeding molasses to help them along.  But molasses isn’t good for their teeth, and what’s more, it’s made from GMO sugar beets.  Organic feed-grade molasses isn’t available here, and buying human quality molasses would have been ridiculous.  We used about a five gallon bucket over the winter.

I was inspired when we went to a local farm to pick up Richard the Bull, who fathered (or is it sired?) Flora and Explorer.  It was January, and they had rolling green pastures of beautiful rye that the cows were grazing on.  I was jealous when we returned to our totally brown and dead-looking farm.  I realized it was stupid to feed molasses in a place where we can have year-round fresh forage available.  I decided to try seeding rye the following fall.

Ryegrass seeds don’t need to be “drilled”, or mechanically planted.  They can be broadcast by hand, and as long as they make soil contact they’ll usually sprout.  There are so many other beautiful, beneficial forages that we could plant, if we had the equipment.  That’s why we’re still working with just rye.

That first year the rye did come up.  It looked like little strings of Easter grass, and that was as big as it got.  It was so discouraging.  We never had the imagined rye pasture, and I spent the rest of the winter trying to find an easy way to sprout massive amounts of grains without spending $10,000 on a special, mold-free facility, just to give them something fresh and green.

There was a breakthrough when we started getting organic fertilizer from Midwestern Bio-ag.  The winter crops like the brassicas, roots, and ryegrass require so much more fertility and feeding than the summer plants.  In the garden I grew the most beautiful rye, and in the pastures it started to look good – until the deer ate all of it.  We would find deer footprints in the sand literally running to get to the rye pastures.  I begged Ethan to shoot some so we would at least get some venison out of it, but he was too timid.  I guess I can’t blame him.  I probably wouldn’t have done it, even if I didn’t have a tiny baby at the time.

There was also a problem with getting the seeds in contact with the soil.  The summer grasses had lost their palatability months ago, and the cows would pick around the clumps of grass.  The rye would not sprout through these clumps of grass, so the pastures were very patchy.  The best place the rye grew was where we had left the goats, who had eaten it down very well.  I briefly thought maybe we could run the goats along and have them eat it all down, but logistically we don’t have enough goats.  It would take them months.  I tried soaking the grains and mixing clay and fish meal in, kind of like Masanuobu Fukuoka’s seed balls.  It helped and made it possible to also seed oats, which usually need drilled.  I have hope that someday we can add diversity to our pastures in this low-tech way.

This year, we are solving the deer problem by only planting the two lines closest to where other people live.  We are keeping the cows, and therefore the guard dog, on the next line over.  This seemed to be effective last year.  We had our neighbor mow the lines we are seeding.  This worked wonderfully in the garden.  It seemed to give the rye a month’s head start on germination over the un-mowed areas in the pasture.

We are also adding the organic fertilizer, and I will be throwing on tons of pell-lime.  I did a little test-swatch experiment last fall to see if it would make a difference to add more lime than the soil test recommended (that amount seemed to have done nothing to alter the pH).  It made an incredible difference.

We’ll see how these improvements work out.  So often I tweak something in some way, or add a new idea and find out it was better the old way.

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