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"Working together we harvest solar energy with grass grown on healthy soil to sustainably produce delightful food that nourishes people and strengthens our community."

Sustainably Farming Through a Drought

Posted by Mark Grieshop on 8/23/2012 to A Word from Mark

"It's so dry the trees are bribing the dogs." - Charles Martin


Sustainably Farming Through a Drought 

Ahhh, rain, at last!  For those of you doing your rain dances, thank you!   Or maybe the rain god seeing yours truly doing my version of a Hokey-Pokey rain dance exclaimed "Oh my God!" and out of exasperation gave us rain just to avoid having to see me continue "rain" dancing!  Anyways, we all should be very fortunate that rains have returned to the Hoosier state.  Despite the damage already done by the April thru July record-setting dry, hot weather, the recent rains have stymied what had been an ever increasing gap between supply and demand for agricultural commodities.  

Late planed corn benefited from the rains, as well as most soybeans.  Even though those of us who are more health conscious people consume little if any these crops, the yield of these crops will indirectly affect price and availability of the healthy food we do want.  For example, if there is less corn to feed, conventional farmers will consider feeding cows more hay (already in short supply), the same hay that a grass-fed beef operation would ordinarily feed to their beef cows in the winter.  In our compartamentalized world, "everything is only 6 degrees of seperation from affecting everything else."

Like probably many of you, I also enjoyed a reprieve this year from winter cold, snow and weeks of dreary weather.  Things seemed to get even better when spring came early.  Towards the end of March I wised up though, recognizing this peculiar weather pattern as not right and began to think about responding and preparing accordingly, for a drought.  I was only twelve years old when the last major drought struck the area in 1988, but I still remember the weather pattern that led to the dry spring and very hot summer, eerily similar to this years weather pattern and ensuing drought.  I will gladly welcome back a more normal winter, including the smorgasbord of snow, ice, and dreary cloudy, rainy weather. 

At Pastures Delights we employ a myriad of practices that assist in mitigating a drought's impact.

Dont run the tank dry!  (Maintain a Feed Reserve)

A safe pilot maintains a reserve supply of fuel in plane's tanks.  He does not plan to burn that fuel during the course of normal, ordinary operation.  It is saved (reserved) for emergencies only.  At Pastures Delights we maintain a supply of feed that is reserved for emergencies only, which would typically be for a drought.  Whether feed be stored in the field as yet to be grazed pasture or in bales of stored hay, we keep a supply of feed reserved for getting us through periods of less than normal available feed supply.  This practice keeps us from getting pigeon holed into a situation where we have limited options and would have to consider purchasing hay in short supply which is very expensive, sell the future herd (heifers) at a discount price due to the flooded markets with other farmers also selling livestock that they dont have enough feed for, or over-graze the pastures which results in delayed and reduced pasture growth when the rains do eventually return.  A feed reserve sure does help minimize the stress on us.  Can you imagine having to worry about feeding cows' mouths?  

Dont waste fuel!  (Efficiently Manage Our Resources)
Even though we may have ample feed on hand, we prudently manage all our feed resources for minimal waste.  At Pastures Delights we graze every nook and cranny of pasture figuring it saves us from feeding stored (baled) hay which avails us to increasing the size of the herd or selling any excess hay.  Just with our small non-lactating herd of 10 dry cows and heifers, every single day we do not feed hay saves Pastures Delights (our customers) $30 at today's feed prices. 

We do not keep animals that don't have a purpose or good reason to justify feeding valuable feed resources to.  In a drought year like this year we will get rid of beef steers and lower performing animals quickly.  We want to save our feed for the animals that need it most and will do the most good with it. 

Supe up the Engine!
Even though when the Mother Nature turns off the water spicket it is just a matter of time that all life forms will feel the effects there are, however, several nifty gadgets from nature that we can utilize in the realm of sustainable agronomic (farming) practices that will help stave off the effects of drought. 
Store more Water

One of the goals of sustainable farming is to preserve, if not increase, the amount of organic matter in soil.  Organic matter is dead organic material (plants, roots, kitchen scraps, manure) that is decomposed into humus.  Humus acts as a sponge-like reservoir in the soil that stores nutrients and water.  The more soil humus the larger the soil's water reservoir.  To get a good visual on how this works let's compare two buildings, one being constructed of plaster and wood and the other constructed of brick.  If the electricity goes out on a cold winter night the building constructed out of brick is going to keep you warmer longer than the wood and plaster building.  Every time a cow takes a bite of grass the plants roots will die back a proportionate amount and regrow again as the plant grows.  This pulsing effect of root growth and dying helped create the rich soils of the Great Plains.  For every 1% increase organic matter each cubic feet of soil can hold and additional 1.5 quarts of water.  On the flip side, during periods of excessive rainfall the higher the soil organic matter the more water it can capture thus retaining more water where it can be put to use rather than going the river and causing potential flooding issues! 

Grow a water magnet!

You know an sustainable farmer is darn good when his plants can get water right out of thin air.  In the process of growing healthy, quality food one of the agronomic goals of a sustainable farmer is to get the brix as high as possible in the plant.  Brix contains sugar for the plant.  If you wish to experiment, leave an open bag of sugar on the countertop for a day.  The next day you will probably notice the sugar has clumped up.  This is the polarity of the sugar drawing moisture out of the air and causing the sugar to clump.  In similar fashion, the higher the sugar content in a plant the more moisture a plant can absorb out of the air.  Isnt that cool?!  I heard a report that out west it was observed that a farmers organic crops, with higher birx, require 25-30% less irrigation.  


The consolation prize for a farmers achievement in increasing a plant's energy (sugar) level, is the plant uses the sugars to feed through its roots a higher population of mycorrhizal fungi.   These fungi attach themselves to the roots and act as extenions of the the root and assist with water uptake in the roots. 
Keep in mind, these are goals.  It takes a time, money, and Mother Nature on our side to get soil tuned-up to be in tip-top shape.  We will continue to strive towards these goals by being good stewards of our resources.

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