Now that I have two totally different types of livestock, I find myself noticing some interesting differences between them. I mean, obviously... they're different. Yak have horns and elk have antlers, for instance. They may both grow out of their head, but one is regrown yearly and one is a permanent fixture.
But one of the reasons I got the yak was because they are, in some important ways, very similar to the elk. I like that they are an ecologically sound meat choice in that they both convert feed to meat in a much more efficient manner than beef or other traditional livestock. In general, elk and yak use about one third the feed of beef to produce one pound of meat. That's pretty incredible when you think about it!
Scientists claim that matriarchy is fairly rare in the animal kingdom, describing less than a dozen species that practice it. Elk are one of those species. Except for during the rut, when the bull doesn't really lead so much as terrorize the cows into submission to keep them away from rivals, the head cow leads the herd in their day to day decisions. This last rut, Big Guy was very protective of his harem, keeping them deep in the woods out of sight. In fact, for a few weeks, he was so protective, he wouldn't even let them come and get grain from me, despite their clearly wanting to.
The rest of the year, however, the herd is clearly led by a cow. Initially, it was 604, but last summer, as she approached calving time, after a number of very impressive boxing matches, 601 took over the lead position and has held it ever since. In my day to day observations of them, her leadership is fairly clearly seen in where they go and who does what when.
I spent most of my formative years working cattle out west on fairly large ranches. In those outfits, the bulls are kept separate most of the year, and - honestly - they just seem to be interested in doing their job and then resting (it's hard work, I guess! Ha!). I suppose because most of the year it's just a bunch of female cows hanging out, it didn't seem weird at all to move onto an elk farm where the predominant social structure is one of matriarchy. So I was a bit surprised by just how patriarchal the yak are. The big bull is clearly in charge... of everything and his herd dutifully follows his every move. The video below is a perfect example of how they follow him around, strung in a line, head to tail.
Growing up, I loved watching Nature on PBS and other wildlife shows. One of the things I love about my little farm is that it almost feels like my own episode of Nature every time I go out to check on my critters. Sometimes I'll go out to feed and my husband will call me and ask me why it's taken me two hours to do a twenty minute job. Oops! They're just so fascinating to watch - I never get tired of being out there with them!
This past summer, I enjoyed watching a pair of white tail fawns visiting our farm regularly and growing. They were a rambunctious pair and always fun to watch. Here is a picture from last August when they still had their spots. Though their family group had a regular loop going through our yard, sometimes I would go weeks or more without seeing them; then they would come around again and I'd get to see them frequently for a bit before they'd go farther afield for a while. A couple of weeks ago, they started coming through again regularly. On that warm day when the elk were feeling frisky, the twins were in my yard playing too. I got a little bit of a video of them playing in my orchard.
Sadly, when I went out to feed the elk this morning on the back side of the farm, I came across one of those twins dead near the side of the road. Except for some blood in the snow from his nose and mouth, he might have been sleeping. It was a little buck and he was just starting to sprout his first set of antlers! He was in the alleyway between two of the pastures, and I cannot tell you how damning it felt to be dragging this little body out to the road past Piggy and the girls, who were intently watching me. I went to ask the neighbor's hired men if they wanted to salvage the meat, and upon driving back to the body, I was greeted by the saddest sight.
It is probably hard to see here, but if you look in the middle of the road a little ways back, there is the twin to this poor dead buck. It was in the field watching and came running, following me, as I approached its fallen twin. As we lifted the little body into the back of the pickup to salvage the meat, the remaining twin ran off. Saddest thing I've seen in a while. I'm really going to miss watching them play.
You know what that is? That's homegrown winter feed that the stock have decided they love. It's grass clipping silage (aka haylage) that I ensiled (fermented into usable, storable feed) in garbage bags last April. I only put up three bags as an experiment this year, but now that I've spoken with my vet and let the critters try it, next year, I'm going whole hog!
So what prompted this experiment, you might ask? This, my friends, is my front yard. And it's only a small portion of the yard that I mow each week, all growing season long. It takes me between 3 and 4 hours to mow with a very fast ZTR mower and, if the grass has grown so much that week that I have to bag it so it doesn't leave clumps everywhere, I will add between one and two cubic yards of grass clippings to my compost pile.
Although the clippings don't go to waste, per se, as they either are composted in place or in my compost pile, as a stockman, it galls me. What a bunch of wasted feed! Every time I mow, all I can think is, "Dangnabit, someone could be eating this!" So I started doing research, and, low and behold, I found a very promising answer!
The only experience I had with silage prior to this endeavor was smelling it as I drove by silage pits, but I came across a few articles that described being able to preserve grass on a small scale by putting it up in air tight bags. Interestingly, most of the research on this is as a method to help African farmers to withstand drought and seasonal fluctuations in forage availability. There are also a few outfits in the US trying to develop large scale methods of ensiling grass clippings as a way to reduce landscape waste, but I'm not sure how you account for spray residue in that kind of operation, where the clippings are coming a bunch of different residential lawns. Obviously, if I'm going to feed it to my animals, I want to be sure I'm not feeding them a bunch of herbicides and pesticides!
The concept was so simple, I figured I had nothing to lose. One day in April while mowing, instead of dumping all the clippings in my compost pile, I simply dumped some of them into garbage bags, squished all the air out of them, and tied them up. I then put the bags in the back of my lawn shed and forgot about them... well, that's not completely true. Every time I went into the shed, I was reminded of them because I could smell them! But it wasn't really a bad smell, it was just really fermenty. About mid-summer, I opened one of the bags to take a peek and was thrilled to find perfectly fermented grass. I closed the bag up tightly again and then let them sit until last month. They held perfectly and looked just the same last month as they did in July. Amazing!
After speaking with my vet to be sure I didn't need to have the forage tested before feeding it, I let the critters have a go. They were initially a bit unsure about it, but within a day, they were convinced that it was good eats! The yak love it. The elk love it. And next winter when I have laying hens, I'm sure they'll love it and I'll be able to enjoy dark, rich yolked eggs all winter long! I am so excited! I'm almost even excited to start mowing again. Almost.