The Wages of Winter
Out of the winter comes a new springtime for many things in many ways. Spring's healthy burst of life is only possible because of the deadness of the winter. It takes the transference of resources in the ecosystem during a state of dormancy to start the explosive beauty of springtime. This dormancy started with the frost that came in the fall. As summer ended and the days got shorter, life began to change. The shorter hours of daylight triggered the plants to prepare for frost and the animals for the winter cold. The plants all stopped trying to produce seed and they focus in on growing more leaves and roots. The animals focus on trying to eat more and to put on more fat reserves and longer hair to keep them warm. With the farm making so much preparation for the dormant season, we need to know what exactly is being prepared for.
Most of our pasture plants are perennial type plants (meaning that they grow back each year) that need to have reserves built up in order to survive the winter. When the plant is lifeless and decides to grow again in the springtime, these reserves, which are stored in the roots, are what gives the plant energy in order to grow new leaves. These large amounts of reserves that the plant grows in the fall are intended to help so much more than just the plant. The reserves are large enough to go around, and if the plants are managed correctly, a lot of the reserves can be taken without threatening the survival of the plant.
The roots under the ground have worked hard all year to create symbiotic relations with the microbial life in the soil. These microbes must survive the winter as well and they need organic matter to eat. The roots of the plants are slowly broken down and consumed during the winter. With healthy soils that have plenty of soil microbes, the rotting roots do not go to waste. The microbes grow, reproduce, and give off heat. The heat helps the plants and the survival of the microbes helps the plant grow stronger, faster, and healthier in the spring.
The animals cannot just survive by using the reserves of fat that they have stored. They need to eat too. Nature matches this need during the winter because after the plants have gone dormant during the winter, the grassy leaves are no longer needed and so they can be eaten without hurting the plant. This system of soil life, grass, and animals is meant to go together.
The winter brings its own protection against the cold. A good thick blanket of snow is not just for looking pretty. It is not referred to as a blanket for no reason. The light and fluffy nature of snow acts as insulation over the ground to help hold down some of the ground heat that is radiating from the earth. This insulation helps to keep the plants and soil life from getting so cold that they die during hibernation. Snow has yet another benefit besides being pretty and keeping the earth cozy for the winter.
Since snow is just frozen water, we must remember that it is part of the water cycle. In the natural cycle of water, a lot of water is held in the soil and soaks through the soil and into springs and other underground veins. During the winter, the ground is too cold to absorb much moisture. If all the water came down as rain, it would have no choice but to run to the rivers and lakes, washing soil and plant material along with it. If the water falls as snow, however, it allows the water to flow very slowly as it melts, giving the soil more time to absorb more water. If the soil can absorb the water, it can better avoid drought in the next growing season.
The cold and dormant time of year is necessary because it gives the circle of life a time to heal and kill off disease and sickness. The cleanliness that comes after the winter cold is perfect for new life to grow more easily and in the peak of health. As hard as it is for us to enjoy the cold and damp winter season, it does pay to go through it. It is how our world stays clean and healthy. As we learn every day here on the farm, nothing comes free. Even though we cant produce in the winter, we look with great anticipation toward the fresh season of growth which is right around the corner.