It’s that time of year when you hear “It’s really hot and dry out there” and “I hope we get some rain soon.” In many regions of the Northeast, extended dry periods have been commonplace in 2022, interrupted by a quick-hitting batch of rain (in some cases, a deluge event). However, these stressful times are sometimes blessings in disguise. That’s if you’re ready to learn from them.

Two “cool” pasture walks hosted by dairy farmers Richard Nolt and Martin Schlabach took place as part of a series offered by Danone North America/Horizon Organic. Led by Danone’s North America Regenerative Project team of Katherine Staiger, Caitlin Dillon and Sustainable Environmental Consultants agronomist Katie Catron, farmers came together to learn resiliency indicators and practices that hold moisture during drier periods.

Staiger said, “Danone is dedicated to sharing knowledge, introducing new approaches and practices and partnering with farmers. To succeed in our mission, the Regenerative Agriculture Program is committed to growing food in a way that supports farmers and farmworkers, regenerates nature and supports animal welfare.”

Right from the start, inspiration for a-ha moments came in the form of a simple infrared digital thermometer that showed farmers bare soil was over 100º while plant or trampled residue cover kept the soil cooler – at 65º to 70º. This stark observation showed how important pasture residual is to keeping biology and plant growth rates positive during hot, dry times.

Dry weather – A pause for learning is cool

Danone/Horizon Organic Regenerative Project’s Katherine Staiger demonstrates a water infiltration test for farmers. Photo by Troy Bishopp

Plant growth rates for the two locations provided another teachable moment in which four-inch pasture residuals yielded 0.3 inches/day of growth while six-inch plant residuals yielded double that in the same timeframe. The proof of higher grazing heights substantiated a monitoring program (yardstick in the field) and allowed for future growth projections with dry periods upon us. Both farms recognized the concerns of slower growth and had built in at least a 40-day recovery period for their pasture swards so the cows could keep harvesting fresh forage daily.

Another simple tool to sample soil health during summertime heat is the often overlooked soil infiltration test. Using a 6×6 circular metal ring driven three inches into the ground and a bottle of water, Staiger demonstrated to farmers how to mimic one- and two-inch rainfall events. Both farms were able to infiltrate the simulation within 10 minutes – a win for when the quick-hitting thunderstorm drops much-needed moisture. It also gives the practitioner confidence in how improving soil health practices relates back to a farm’s resiliency. It’s not how much rain you get that’s important, it’s how much you can hold on to.

The diversity of plants and their varied root systems and canopy cover are also positives when it comes to infiltrating water. They’re also important in providing a good cool home for microbes, earthworms and dung beetles to thrive. Farmers got to “feel” the temperature difference under a new Shade Haven™ portable grazing shade structure where the 25-cow unit was 20º cooler than the ambient temperature. This structure offers a way to keep fertility in the field and build soil health capacity for future grazings.

Whether it’s a thermometer, an infiltration test or maintaining higher forage residuals and longer recovery periods, learning ways a farmer can read the land and improve the water cycle is cool. And when indicators are showing you positive gains, take a break from the heat and celebrate with some ice cream and a dip in your favorite body of water. You’ve earned it!

by Troy Bishopp