Drought

State of the Farm

Uh oh. After seven splendid months of bountiful rain, the spigot was turned off. We expect August to be dry, and the first half of September usually is too. But then the rains start again, leading into our wettest month, October. That’s the norm. But this year is the “abnorm”. And this dryness has our bovines drawing down on the fats they have been putting away in the first seven months. So we’re going backwards a little bit as I write. Water is the indispensable element in the grass business.

The lack of water affects not only our summer grasses but threatens our coming winter pastures as well. We will spend significant time and dollars broadcasting seed this month, seed that will fall on dry ground. And dryness compounds the planting problem because it also prevents us from disking the surface to expose soil to greet the seed. Assuming the rain does come sometime this fall, the seed won’t have the quicker germination that exposed soil gives it. The winter grasses will be delayed at best, meaning we may have to import some stored grass (hay) in order to fill the gap.

In the farming business, you place your bet and take your chances. The unpredictability keeps it interesting. But as Chicken George said, “ya gotta have a plan B”.

Plan B we have. But plan A is our preference so watch the skies around Brenham and hope they get wet soon.

What Don’t Kill Us…

…makes us stronger, right? So we survived the drought with many consequences, one being the aquatic weed population in our ponds and lakes. It has flourished. What happens is that the low water levels expose seed that could not reach a growth stage in normal times. Suddenly they can and do. So our water holes were covered in duck weed last year. When it returned this year, we said enough! There were two cures offered – pond herbicides or the tilapia fish, the latter a pure herbivore who loves any aquatic greenery. We chose natural, of course. They are already at work. Nature is so cool.

Have you had tilapia at your favorite café or fish monger’s shop? It is a delicious slab of meat and when grown out naturally, contains many of the benefits of salmon, another herbivore. So, if we can figure out how to catch them at summer’s end, you may see a few filets in your cooler. Stay tuned on that point.

Financial Sustainability

I mentioned in August that there was a chance that we might have to make a mid-year price adjustment but wanted to watch things a bit longer before making that decision. While it is true that we undershot on price for this “catch-up year”, we are going to leave price where it is for now and look at it again in January. What were the causes of our concern? The explanation follows.

The three year drought has changed the economics of our operation. For 3 years, cattlemen have been reducing their herd size because they could not feed the momma cows. The Texas herd is now at 1950 levels. While Texas is the largest producer in the nation, other big producing states have fallen victim to the same drought. When you sell your producers for lack of grass, you are simultaneously reducing the number of calves to sell in the following years. When the buyers are competing for a smaller number of calves to send to their feedyards for fattening, the price goes up. So why does the cost of commercial beef cause us financial pain? We get 25% of our calves from Clay’s Buckhorn Cattle Company, raised by Clay and Julia Gay, under our same protocol. We pay whatever the market price is plus 10 cents per pound and we still have to finish them at JVF. This has made the cost of collaborative beef nearly double in price over what was paid before the drought began.

The cost of beef has had a cascading effect on pork. The beef packers have been filling their void by buying more pork. In the case of pork, that price has been effected twice; once because there is more demand for pork and even more so because the CAFO operators have been dealing with an outbreak of a virus that has reduced their herd. So pork prices have soared. Under the same arrangement that we have with Buckhorn, we now pay our pig breeder 3 times what we did when we started our home delivery program. Our little pigs will then spend on average another 9 months in our wooded paddocks and pastures before they are finished and ready to go.
So that’s the story on our financial sustainability. We will take a manageable reduction in sustainability this year and will wait until January our re-visit our pricing. Thank you for sticking with us in these inflationary times.

Where’s the Beef?

It’s an entirely legitimate question that some of you have asked and many of you must be wondering quietly. Our monthly packages have been miserably short of beef. But the cure is on the way. Allow me to apologize, explain and then give you the good news that it will get better soon. This is our first serious bump in the road but it will get better. Please stay with us.

The explanation is this. Of the three meats we provide to our members, beef represents by far the slowest growing of our “Slow Foods”. Beef is also the only one of our three creatures that consume grass only as their daily diet. The effect of the 2011 drought was to restrict their growth cycle. To a great extent the beeves were only maintaining rather than adding weight. We finally decided that producing 5-ounce ribeye steaks was counter-productive. We had to give them more time. The resumption of the drought starting last March only made things worse.

But the good news — our beef pipeline is starting to fill again. By your October coolers, you should see a return of beef in a higher though still below par quantity than you have seen the last 3 or 4 months. From that point on, the beef supply will only get better as we reach the desired balance of beef, pork and chicken.

We grow with the seasons. It just so happens that the current season is not so much spring, summer or fall, but instead the season of the drought.

State of the Farm

It appears that the forecasters who predicted a dry, droughty summer despite a rainy winter and early spring appear to be right. We fell significantly behind in our rainfall for April and May and now June is lagging badly as a high pressure ridge has settled above us. We have already brought in a truck-load of hay and have another one on the way, hay that we would not normally need before winter but will have to be fed to supplement less-than-ideal grazing conditions in the summer instead.

Clay has done a fine job of foreseeing this rain gap and laying a claim to hay at the best price we have paid in at least a year if not more. That has helped ease the loss of rainfall these last 3 months. And while it is hot, it is not hot like it was last year. We had less than half the number of days above 95 than we did last May. That helps all of the creatures of Jolie Vue, but it doesn’t grow grass. We are seeing the after-effects of 2011 in our grasses’ response to irrigation.

Keep in mind the importance of allowing rest time for the grasses to recover, remembering that a blade of grass is not only food but a solar panel for capturing the energy of the sun. The length of the blade of grass also reflects the depth of the root system, so stunted grass tells you that the roots are short and shallow, trying to successfully inhabit the hottest, driest part of the subsoil closest to the surface.

Farming — it’s not for the feint of heart. 

Everything Else is Peachy at JVF

Though the grasses have slowed down due to hot, dry weather, the peaches were already set in the rains and applying some irrigation later was more than adequate to bring them to a perfect ripeness. We will harvest more than 2000 peaches this year — compared to NONE in last year’s drought — and that doesn’t count the ones left on the ground to keep the bugs and the critters out of the trees. As we say, make enough for every creature, great and small. They have to eat too.

Most of the peaches are put up for the finishing diet for our pigs, so you will have peach-pork by July and continuing into August and September. A smaller portion was reserved by Honi to make her famous peach jam. But the pigs get first choice. When we say you’re eating with the seasons, you can take it to the bank!

Why did we have no peaches at all last year? Did the trees sense a hard drought in the air and just shut down to preserve themselves for another year? Or was there some other cause? These are the questions that keep farming an interesting art. If the former is the reason, why didn’t irrigation work to make peaches? Isn’t water the same whether from the sky or from the well? My speculation is this: the super-heated drought did not effect an irrigated peach orchard but it did effect the pollinators. The bees, butterflies and wasps did not survive in normal numbers and so our peach blossoms did not germinate. If I’m right, we need to incorporate bee hives into our farming protocol. They’re farming insurance, so we will put them near the top of our capital expenditure list for next year.

State of the Farm

It is no exaggeration when I say we have gone from drought conditions to flash flood levels in a 4 month period. The ponds and lake are full to the brim and any fast, heavy rain will quickly cause a river of water passing through the  Jolie Vue valley that divides the east side from the west at the farm. There are no complaints here, of course, just wonderment at the rapidity with which things can change. Add to that the hope that the rains continue into the early summer months so that we have grass for the entire grazing season.  If it does continue, our drought worries will be over for the year.

Just the facts, Ma’am

We finished the 13th month of extreme drought conditions on October 31st, 2011. Our first above average rain month came last November when we recorded 4.4 inches of rain against a 7 year average of 1.7 inches. That was our first hint that we either got lucky in November or something was changing. November rains were followed by 3.6 in December, 3.3 in January and a whopping 8.7 in February. Every month was hitting above its average. As I begin this report on March 6th, we have rainstorms in the forecast beginning Thursday through the weekend.  Sounds like the good rain will continue.

The Long and Short of It

In the thirteen months of the drought, we recorded 17.8 inches of rain. In the last 4 months, we have collected 20 inches. That is a huge swing. We won’t feel confident that the drought is over until we see good rain through July 4th, but we are doggoned happy with where we stand right now. Thank you for sticking with us through this valley of tears.

The State of the Drought

We are pleased to be getting some rain this Fall and hope it continues through the winter. If it does, it should supply enough water to give us a spring grazing season and then we will await the summer and following fall to see if it extends. The experts say no, but weather is hard to predict. So far we are close to 100% on the typical fall cycle of southern winds off the Gulf bringing moisture to the atmosphere, followed by cold fronts moving in from the Northwest and triggering rainstorms. We did miss on the first two fronts which seemed too mild to jolt the atmosphere, but we are 6 for the last 6 as I write. That’s good news.

Let’s talk about the serial effect of a drought:

  • Grass - First you lose your grass during the grazing season and have no opportunity to grow a winter stand in the cool season. This creates a financial hardship by driving up both the amount as well as the cost of hay, but only lasts as long as the drought. Grass seed is lying on the ground as we speak, waiting for its rain to cause germination and growth. We’ll get it back as soon as the rain returns in spring and summer.
  • Watering holes - The next loss is the watering holes for the cattle. Two of our three ponds dried up completely by July. Our recent rains have had little effect on refilling them because the ponds depend on runoff to be re-charged and the dry ground sucks up rain as soon as it falls. That being noted, if the rains continue the ponds will eventually grab some water and it may be enough to get us through a spring rotation.
  • Trees - The last checkpoint in a drought is the trees and they have become our biggest concern. We are blessed to have oak and pecan trees that predate the civil war. They add not only majesty to our farm but nuts and shade for our pigs who live under their umbrella. Very valuable trees.

We also have an array of native trees, including the cedar, which happens to draw more water than any of the tree species in our forest. The cedars are either dead or dying and they are the harbingers of what might happen if this is a multi-year drought. The more valuable trees will go next.  We can afford to lose cedar. In a way, their loss is useful because the absence of cedar means more water for everything else in the woods. But if you lose 200 year old trees, it’s goodbye for our lifetime and beyond. That possibility is harder to accept. Every little bit of rain refreshes the oaks and pecans and extends their ability to wait this out. So whether these recent rains are a temporary interlude or not, we welcome the moisture.