Word on the street says you gain experience just after you really need it and you’re supposed to learn from past experiences in an effort to not repeat. After 32 years in the managed grazing business, I’m not supposed to be surprised anymore. That was until the dry spell of 2012 when I literally got burned.
That year in the Northeast we had a warm winter followed by a grazing season with 25 days of over 90 degrees and very sporadic rain. This was a period where it might sprinkle every three to four weeks and you counted a dew as rainfall. What I can remember is it was a highly stressful time to manage a newly started organic 100 percent grass-fed dairy heifer custom grazing operation. It took me to the brink of my gray matter capabilities to get through it.
It tested my decision-making, the land and plant’s resilience and the back-up plan, as for years previous, I kind of coasted on my laurels and the moisture always came. I vowed after 2012, I would never be stressed like that again. I would always be on guard and be ready for the next event. And then 2016 shows up without a winter, little moisture and the feeling of Déjà vu creeps into the farm again.
My gut was telling me in March that it could be a rough 2016. Learning to be proactive not reactive was a good lesson from 2012. I look at grazing management as a systems process with all the benefits of soil/plant health, animal performance, finances and quality of life intertwined with all decisions impacting the whole farm. To prepare, I rely on a practiced regime including an extensive grazing planning chart where I dial in what I want to happen (recovery periods, stocking rate, stockpiling, vacations and profit potential) and not take what I’m given by Mother Nature.
What was the initial game plan for this potential drought? Lock in longer recovery periods, reduce cattle numbers, maintain emergency baleage feedstock and do a financial projection. And monitor conditions often! The recovery period adjustment would leave more residual, that you could graze or trample and sequester more sparse rain and cool the soil. Reducing stocking rate was a function of financial consideration as it makes more money to graze fewer on pasture than having to feed more stock hay. Any farmer knows the value of having extra feed around for emergency situations. Doing financial budgeting and “what if” scenarios was paramount to reducing stress.
Almost on cue, April was dry and cool and plants reacted well to my extra recovery time of 28 days (normal would be 15-20 days). My friends in the southern tier and western New York were even drier, but it made for ideal planting with the hopes that the rain was due soon and all would be good. Their hope never materialized.
The bleaker it looked for others, the better it looked where I lived, because we got a shower here and a short downpour there, just when we needed it. With the soil and forage capturing the intermittent moisture, we were able to build pasture reserves (>4000lbs/DM/acre) to the point where we even considered adding 40 more cows to the herd of 75 on the 150 acres of grazing land. I resisted because the object in the plan was to have plenty of feed to weather the looming drought in mid-summer. The preplan was working but I felt pretty guilty amongst my friends who saw nary a drop of life-giving rain.
Hugh Aljoe, Noble Foundation Producer Relations Manager said, “Early diagnosis of lack of progress allows for early and timely implementation of an alternate management strategy. Forage assessments on critical dates across the seasons are extremely useful to monitor the balance between forage production and livestock demand. Monitoring can also indicate the need for a new strategy to be implemented and the extent to which adjustments are needed. A good example is the early recognition of conditions that warrant the implementation of a drought plan.”
My colleagues admitted to me they waited too long to implement a drought plan, because historically it always rains, so why go in battle mode when a shower must be right around the corner. I call it “hopeful” grazing with the analogy that it makes for a good lunch but a poor supper. Hope is not a very useful grazing management strategy.
In my experience, a long dry spell or drought is mentally demoralizing as the “worry” infects your being and you become a storm-watching zombie, hoping for some relief. You become disenchanted and many times, isolated from friends and family. We stop having pasture walks and sharing solutions. I mean really, what can you learn from a dried out pasture?
I went to our state grazing conference in August and hardly anyone talked about what was under their feet with the fact that they couldn’t get the probe in the ground to take a soil health test. Meanwhile, I was finding solutions to this epic drought right under a former bale ring in which the grass was holding its own from the increased organic matter, fertility and rest. I also saw plants with deep root systems look better than average, especially alfalfa, chickory and plantain. Let’s look for opportunities even when it’s bleak.
At home with 40 to 55 days of planned plant recovery time, a take half, leave half mentality and a shower here and there, we began to increase our forage mass for stockpiling into fall. Coincidently, the fall became our driest time (we couldn’t escape karma). With our grazing management plan conservatively implemented and forage residuals that never got below 6 inches, we were basically unaffected. In fact, I prefer a dry fall because stockpiled cool season pastures stand up better and the hooves and mud don’t desecrate the valuable, standing haystack.
We finished grazing on Dec. 10 but had enough stockpile until Christmas, if it weren’t for a 3-foot snowstorm at Thanksgiving that flattened the pastures, opportunity and dollars like the drought had done to my grazier friends. Ah, the fickle weather, how it levels the playing field!
Looking back on our five-year custom grazing relationship shows we have maintained a consistent profit, a predictable 240 day grazing season in the snowbelt and improved our pasture and soil health. The intensive grazing planning, monitoring and flexible plant recovery times and stocking rates have evened out the unpredictable weather events so our land is able to infiltrate downpours or retain the scarce water. A lot can be said about how our “what if” mindset, experience and constantly adapting to alternative scenarios when times get tough, in building a resilient farm.
It hasn’t been easy to admit we didn’t get a ticket to the drought party for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, who are in financial and environmental stress. However, we are compelled to share with others, some approaches that show merit for success. I like it because it’s management driven (brain power) and not horsepower driven. We all have the tools within our bodies, a commodity we sometimes forget first, in lieu of the dollar.
“The best news is that it will rain again; it is nearly as inevitable as drought. Drought management is largely about employing the most appropriate risk management techniques.” ~ Rancher, Troy Marshall.
Previously published in Progressive Forage March 1, 2017