You might have noticed that I talk about the state of our rainfall a lot. No doubt about it. Farming is all about rain - the one element over which we exercise little control. Sometimes too much, sometimes too little, sometimes just right (hardly ever).We’re in the “too little” stage currently and hoping it does not last. But our job is to assume it will last, and when it does, what do we do in defense of our soil, our grasses and our creatures.
The first move is to turn on the irrigation, which costs about $300 a month in increased electric bills. So the second thing we do is grit our teeth awaiting the bill from Bluebonnet Electric. Electricity is a lot more expensive in the country where the cost of infrastructure, generation and maintenance is spread over far fewer consumers.
Irrigation must start before the grass starts growing. If moisture does not precede growth there will be no growth. February 15th was our start point this year following a decent January rainfall but preceded by an unusually dry November and December and an overall dry fall last calendar year. So we started out behind and knew that at our first sign of dryness going into the spring, we had to turn on the faucet. Hence, February 15th. We have had no appreciable rain since then.
We only have irrigation on a fourth of our 107 acres, so it is not the complete answer and we couldn’t afford it if we had it everywhere anyway. Our most important tool to combat drought is carefully monitored grazing in small patches at a time. We have our entire acreage broken into appropriately sized plots for the first time in our history and plan to use that to squeeze out every bite of grass that the growing season brings.
There are two pasture management tools which are essential to maximizing forage. First, never allow a patch to be eaten down to the ground; otherwise, there are no grass blades left behind to catch the sun’s energy. Second, we allow at least 35 days of rest before returning to that patch. The grass must be allowed time to recover. If you come back too soon, you will only stunt it.
So what do you do when you have made the entire cycle and you are too soon back to the starting point? In other words, when you have just finished patch # 35 but patch number one is not ready to be grazed again? Feed hay or return more quickly to an irrigated patch until patch #1 is ready. Hay is extra cost and is of inferior quality by its very nature to green, growing grass. But it’s a better alternative than delivering the knockout blow to your pastures as the temperature and dryness ascends.
So you see, irrigation and hay are your relief pitchers when you have failed to stretch your forage in a dry year. Well-managed grazing is the essential tool that may allow you to avoid calling on your bullpen. We shall see.