State of the Farm

The state of the farm is, as always, primarily determined by the state of the weather. Since weather is the one element we have no control over, we learn to be realistic about and adaptable to Mother Nature’s whims. There is no defying her; those who try, die. So let’s take a look-back at 2016 because her behavior then may tell us something about what to expect in 2017.

The all-important report from the rain guage: last year saw a rain registry report of 53.4 inches. That is a near record, surpassed only by one of our early years when we recorded 58 inches that included 17 inches in one month coming from a tropical storm in late summer. Growing grass is all about moisture, so 2016 sounds like a pretty good year, right? Yes it was, but look a little deeper and we find a caveat in the story – 26 inches came in the month of May during the 500 year storm that included 2 twisters that crossed the farm. If we subtract those 26 inches from 53, we are left with an average rainfall for the other 11 months of 2.5 inches. Since 4 inches of rain per month is the gold-standard rain year, we were short by 1.5 inches per month of “perfect”, a 38% miss on rainfall. And that explains my earlier lamentations that our problem last year was the cycle that gave us a lot of rain followed by long dry periods. Our early lessons in 2017 suggest a continuation of that pattern. January was well above average and February is dry so far. The wet/dry cycle, combined with above average temperatures, has our winter rye very confused. Cooler temperatures would have the winter rye growing furiously right now but the temps have it wondering if it should stay hunkered down. So the rye is not what we had hoped for when we planted it last fall. Maybe we get a late burst and maybe we don’t. While we wait for the answer, we draw from our hay inventory to maintain growth in our livestock, albeit slower growth than we aim for. Hay is a good insurance policy, but it doesn’t pay like green, living grass. 

And that’s what the State of the Farm is all about in February 2017!

State of the Farm

We finally worked out of our Fall dry spell with 4 inches of rain as December began. September, October and November were well below expectations on a combined basis. The dryness retarded the growth of our winter pasture as we watched our cattle draw down on fat storage. Always tough to see that happening, especially when we had experienced such a good growth year to that point. Mother Nature giveth and she taketh away. It is rare indeed to have a perfect year. We’ll settle for a simply good year as we watch the winter rye sprout and grow with the life-giving rains.

Instead of groaning, we look for the bright side. Having a much better than usual rainfall in August gave the summer grasses one last and gigantic boost. The leftovers from that month make for “standing hay”, the dry matter that will make the fresh green winter rye more digestible. So there you go! The bright side of things as we head into the most wonderful time of the year.

Winter rye has no equal in terms of giving a fine, fresh and clean beef taste. We hear people talk about grass-fed and grass-finished beef being “gamey”. Not ours. It’s all about getting the right grasses into the growing beef. Get ready for our best beef and pork come January through the spring, when it’s best competitor, spring grasses, will take over. You’re eating not only with the seasons, but with the best seasons of the years once we enter the new year.

State of the Farm

On the dry side. Funny funny year, with flooding rains interspersed with rather long dry spells. September and October have passed as below normal rainfall. November may hit its norm but too early to tell. We have had one nice rain, not nearly enough to recharge the ponds with drinking water for the creatures or begin the germination of our winter pasture. But our tall summer grasses are still bountiful so we are getting a prolonged graze from them while we await growth of the transition to winter. No panic situation yet. Actually, panic is too strong a word to use at all. We are accustomed to taking what Mother Nature gives and dealing with it after 27 years of living with her.

At the Rain Gauge

July finished with 1 ¼ inches against the average of 3 ¼, a 2 inch deficit. But June was 2 inches above average so it sort of offsets drier July.

As I checked our year to date rainfall this time of year, I found something surprising. Out of the seven months now completed, 5 were below average (January-April -5 and July -2”) and only 2 were above average (May at 26.6” and June +2”). I don’t recall having so many months below average in our entire history, but as I mentioned many times before, call it what you want, our weather is changing. Everything, be it rain or temperature, seems more severe, more acute. And as we go to press, August rain totals to date are way ahead of normal. I like that because it sets us up for a good grass crop in the Fall and drops the temperatures down in the process. But it also makes the point of a changing climate when our normally driest month is in line to be our second wettest month of the year.

That’s the report from “on the ground”! 

The Rain Gauge

Jolie Vue Farms - Cows Eating.

So what’s happening now? We broke the dry spell that I noted last time. 3.3 inches in a day and a half, followed 10 days later by 5.5 inches over 2 days. This of course was welcome as it popped our rye and oat grasses. But what is impressing us since the drought went away and the rains returned is that the new pattern is large rains followed by dry spells followed by large rains, followed by... That’s different than the pre-2011 pattern which consisted of 6/10ths here, 1 inch there, spread over the given month. Never too wet, never too dry. It is very much the other way now. So successful farmers have to do what they have always done –  adjust on the fly. What does that mean on a day to day basis under these changing conditions? It means you keep some stored grass on hand. You don’t move to the next pasture in the rotation when that pasture has not had sufficient rest and re-growth. So you go to your stored hay supply to feed your livestock, buying time for your next pasture to mature. Otherwise, you are in a downward spiral, damaging the recoverability of each successive pasture. While our creatures always prefer grazing the green stuff, stored grass is insurance for us. The most important thing in pasture management is recovery time. If you hit a pasture too soon after it was clipped, the recovery is handicapped. Can’t do it. Bring on the hay! 

Farmers survive by dancing to Mother Nature’s orchestra. We lose if we are waltzing when she is doing the 2-step. So figure out the music and get with the dance. Stepping on her toes will eventually put you on the sideline.

The Rain Gauge

We closed out 2015 having emptied the rain gauge of 68.5 inches, a 26 year record at our little spot on the planet. That is a monthly average of 5.7 inches when 4 inches is considered optimum moisture. It is even more impressive when one considers that August/ September/October were well below average, totaling less than 6 inches for the three months. If you take those months out of the equation, the remaining 9 months hit an average of 7 inches per month. That is astounding. The ponds are full to overflowing and the water table is rising, providing insurance for the next dry spell which is sure to come. We hope for the best and plan for the worst, but 2015 goes into the books as among the best.

We are always looking ahead to what the macro-forecasters are saying and they are not hopeful, predicting a shift from El Nino to his sister, El Nina in the April or May time period. If proven accurate, that would mean dryness right when our spring grasses are trying to take root. The Spring Flush could be flushed. That is the worst sort of start for the summer growing season because if we don’t get our grasses tall going into the hot summer months, the soil temperature rises and growth is reatrded or suspended altogether. Can’t afford that, so we will watch closely and be ready to turn the irrigation on, an expensive alternative but less so than the consequence of spring dryness. I add that I think they are wrong because their assumption is based on cooler than usual waters on both of our coasts and I don’t think that will happen. Stay tuned.

The Rain Gauge

The heat of August dissipated toward the end of the month as cloudiness moved in and dropped the temperatures a solid 10 degrees. Humidity and morning fog increased, giving us some morning moisture; not as good as a rain, of course, but better than the low humidity days we had while the high pressure ridge stood over us for most of the month. Humidity and fog decelerate the dehydration effect of hot, dry days.

With 1.6 inches of rain in August, we only slightly exceeded the average of 1.4. That’s okay — anything that is like normal is welcome.

So this is where we are for the year-to-date: 47.1 inches, which exceeds the pre-drought average for 12 months and exceeds the average as of September 1st by a whopping 23 inches. On average, that is an additional 2 inches per month over normal. Unless we don’t get the typical fall rains, we are on track to beat the largest total rainfall ever experienced in our 26 years at JVF. We’ll take that in a heartbeat! And a hope that we repeat anything like that in 2016.