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 it. 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 90ºF and very sporadic rain. This was a period where it might sprinkle every three to four weeks, and I counted 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 ability, the land and plants’ resilience and the backup 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 ready for the next event. And then 2016 showed up without a winter, little moisture – and the feeling of déjà vu crept in.
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 and plant health, animal performance, finances and quality of life intertwined with all decisions impacting the whole farm.
So to prepare, I relied on a practiced regime including an extensive grazing planning chart where I dialed in what I wanted to have happen (recovery periods, stocking rate, stockpiling, vacations and profit potential).
What was the initial game plan for this potential drought? Locking in longer recovery periods, reducing cattle numbers, maintaining emergency baleage feedstock, preparing a financial projection and monitoring conditions often. My thinking was: The recovery period adjustment would leave more residual that my cows could graze or trample and which would 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 head on pasture than having to feed more stock hay. Any farmer knows the value of having extra feed around for emergency situations, so I would keep emergency baleage on hand. And preparing financial budgets and “what if” scenarios were 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 to 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. But the rain 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 (greater than 4,000 pounds of dry matter per 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 pre-plan was working, but I felt pretty guilty that my friends saw nary a drop of life-giving rain.
Hugh Aljoe, Noble Foundation producer relations manager says, “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 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. You 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 because 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, where 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. I encouraged others to 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 to last until Christmas – if it hadn’t been for the 3-foot snowstorm at Thanksgiving that flattened the pastures. Ah, the fickle weather, how it levels the playing field.
And now, looking back on our five-year custom-grazing relationship shows we have maintained a consistent profit, a predictable 240-day grazing season in the Snow Belt 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 infiltrated when a downpour comes and retains the scarce water.
A lot can be said about the resilience of a “what if” mindset, experience and constantly adapting to alternative scenarios when times get tough.
It hasn’t been easy to admit we didn’t get a ticket to the 2016 drought party (for fear of hurting someone’s feelings who might be in financial and environmental stress). However, I am compelled to share with others some approaches that show merit for success. I like the drought plan I used because it is management-driven and not horsepower-driven.
Rancher Troy Marshall says, “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.”
What’s your drought management plan?
PHOTO: Hoping for rain is not a very useful grazing management strategy. A custom grazier shares his risk management plan to financially survive drought. Photo by Mike Dixon.
- Freelance Writer and Custom Grazier
- Deansboro, New York
- Email Troy Bishopp
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