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Grazing Through the Drought in Western Oregon

October 31, 2012

Drought is no stranger to Western Oregon.  Our summers are always on the dry side.  To me, the definition of a drought is when you normally get rain during the growing season and then all of a sudden the weather pattern shifts and then you don’t get the rain you depended on for your crops.  I may be wrong, but despite all the weather data being compiled now that we had the driest July, August and September on record, it really didn’t mean much to us on our farm.  I’ve seen worse, and it doesn’t make the record books.  Worse, how could that be?  Well, worse for us would be maybe a little rain in September (again, that’s normal too but would skew the weather data for those three months) and then not much in the rain gauge until December.  That’s dry.  We can tell because of our spring, it doesn’t recharge until we have six inches of rain in the fall.

October 2012

We started on a drought-proofing journey on our farm in earnest when we started rotational grazing.  I’m happy to say its working, and working quite well due to high density, short duration grazing.  We used to run out of grass in the fall and have to start feeding hay.  Unless it snows I have enough grass stockpiled to last until into December when we can house the cows in the feeding shed and feed hay at that time.   I like not feeding hay, it’s expensive to make and handle and if you are buying hay  – wow – I can’t imagine how much that must cost.  I buy a few expensive bales of candy hay for Jane and yikes!  IT IS EXPENSIVE!  We’re talking condiment here.

I have to say until I understood about stockpiling forage, it was hard to make the rotational grazing thing work real well.  Sure it was an improvement over our willy-nilly, free-range, continuous grazing days, but it wasn’t sliced bread either, we still made a lot of hay and ran out of grass.

Once we understood the stockpiling concept and starting implementing that, we became empowered and free of the weatherman scare tactics and data compiling.  While all my friends were lamenting the “drought” I was smiling thinking about how much longer the stockpile would be nutritious because it wasn’t being subjected to our normal fall rains.  I gained 30 days of more nutritious grass.  Wow, talk about a paradigm shift.

While people were wanting the fall rain so the grass would grow, we were steadily moving the cows through the stockpile.  Don’t get me wrong, rain would have been great, but with planned grazing it’s not the savior, planned stockpiling is.  To have adequate grass next year you shouldn’t be grazing new succulent grass that is spurred on by fall rains anyway…

My stockpiled grass is a good blend of green leaves for grazing and brown carbon (ripe grass) for trampling and that is the secret to more grass.  Instead of nipping the grass in the bud and mining the soil continually, the cows are feeding and fertilizing at the same time.   I used to think removing all the grass and adding lots of manure was the answer to more grass.  After awhile I could see that wasn’t the case.  We tried the oft-touted method of moving the cows through lightly and grazing the grass at  a certain height.  That didn’t make much difference either, we still ran out of grass at the end of our typical Mediterranean-type summers.  Stockpiling and long rest periods are the real answer.

Regrowth despite 3 months without rain – grazed in September

This photo really shows what I mean.  While others in my area where out of grass and their pastures were stalled.  Our pastures were showing regrowth through the driest part of late summer and into fall.  Deep rooted pasture plants are the sustainability and resilience of your grazing future.

Stockpiled forage

As you can see behind the cows the stockpile appears to be brown and it is, but when you actually walk through the stockpile and look at your feet you can see how much green forage there is.

Next post:  Tips and tricks for achieving the cow pantry – the stockpile.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2012 9:11 am

    I read a guy once who said feeding hay is like sitting on a thorn.. I agreed.. c

  2. October 31, 2012 12:37 pm

    It’s so interesting to me how each of our understandings of the natural systems on our farms evolves over time. I’m constantly disagreeing with folks who say that animal manure is the way to fertility on the farm, and thinking that it’s possible to do it with a plant (and mini fauna) based system of cover crops. I’m not actually opposed to livestock, but I don’t think they’re the only way either.

    Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but it seems like what you’re describing here is very similar to a cover crop system that would be mowed down and left in place (the trampled grass), and then spread with a bit of additional compost (bacterially digested plant material or manure). What the animals are doing here is displacing the labor to accomplish the mowing, building of compost piles, and spreading of the finished compost; a neat trick that is very elegant in its execution.

    I think that too many people think of the animals on their farms as a product to be produced and harvested. I think it would be much better if we saw them as a tool to be used to improve our ground, laborers, not free ones either. What we think of as their products are bonuses and certainly contribute to the bottom line, but what they contribute in labors that improve the ground is at least as important, if not more so.

    Curious to hear your thoughts on this.

    • October 31, 2012 5:47 pm

      Josh, gee this comment is taking the thunder out of my next post about “tools” and “landscaping” with livestock. I’m in total agreement with you that livestock are not the only way to build organic matter over time, although I think you can accomplish more in a short time with properly managed livestock, but until we have more Nordellian farmers out there being anal-retentive (Eric’s own description of himself) about their cover crop and manure management program we are pretty much stuck with the compost or composted manure types of farmers. Those who believe manure is a time-worn practice best discarded, (I believe that the Teaming with Microbes folks) and the die-hard time worn manure shovelers (like me) that love gardening and farming with livestock.

      Seeing the animals as a tool and as part of the entire system is the heart of Holistic Resource Management, each and everything is part of the Whole, and therefore needs to be managed and utilized (tool) to its best use without it being a detriment to the rest of the Whole. Simple but complicated. That is why I am so against free-range. Take the chickens on our farm, in a simplistic way I want eggs, to that end I need to keep the chickens safe and taken care of. Scaling down from our large grazing season pastured/winter housed on deep bedding flock to a dozen hens meant we had to make some changes. As a large entity the flock’s main job was producing eggs for sale, then enhancing the pasture. The size of the flock justified the labor to move pasture them intensively and to house them intensively in the winter for manure capture. However, when we sold the flock but still wanted eggs, it made no sense from a labor standpoint to pasture a dozen hens. Sure it can be done, but at what cost, worse yet would be free-range right into a predators mouth, and a pitiful amount of manure capture. No eggs, missing chickens and lots of labor and worry. Now our small flock is housed entirely on deep bedding with greens brought to them and they are bedded daily. A small flock that size with manure management can produce a dump truck load + of partially composted material in one year for our vegetables and supply good eggs. No they aren’t the BEST eggs, but they are good, the chickens do well, they have food, water and conditions (shade in summer/dry in winter.) The labor expended is about equal to the benefit of a dozen good eggs a day, and we have lots of partially composted chicken manure bedding at our disposal 24/7/365. Utilized in this manner the chickens are enhancing a lot on the farm, namely the vegetable gardens, which gives them a lot of spoils, and the eggs are but a mere by-product of the actual manure gathering in the small hoophouse.

      So, yes, I am in total agreement that the actual livestock on the farm is so much more than eggs, milk or meat or even draft as long as the animals are managed. Unfortunately it’s getting quite common to see mini-CAFOs now on small farms. Pigs here in one spot, poultry confined for weeks in another until the land is trashed, then the animals are moved to trash another spot. It’s all about rest, and impact and managing those two items, otherwise the tool is wasted.

  3. Barb in CA permalink
    October 31, 2012 5:18 pm

    So is “stockpile” the uneaten, trampled grass left in the pasture when you rotate them out? Or is it the forage that has grown back since the last time they grazed that pasture? I am facinated at how well you make this work. Thanks again for your continual willingness to teach us what you’ve learned.

    • October 31, 2012 5:51 pm

      Barb, the stockpile is the “stockpile” of grass that has grown since the last grazing. Ninety days is the magic number for us, but we can do better, it just takes time to adjust and tweak. Plus it takes until the next season to see how the land reacts to what you did previously. It was hard to learn that what I am doing today makes a difference next year in what I will see in my pastures. My poor cows, they are obviously the guinea pigs 😉 They still are glad to see me though, so they are excellent farm partners!

      • Barb in CA permalink
        October 31, 2012 7:47 pm

        Okay, with that information I have one more question: You say 90 days is the magic number for you now. Has that number changed as your pastures have improved over the last few years? (I know you’ve worked hard to build up your land.)

        • November 1, 2012 5:36 am

          Barb, what changed was getting more information about “rotational” grazing. There are so many theories and methods that practitioners tout as the right way and those can be based on many different factors. Most are concentrated on keeping the grass at a certain height, irrigating, etc. Most of those state that 30 days or even as low as 21 is the best way, without taking into consideration that the Mother Nature may not respond to a schedule like that and the may not be ready for grazing in 21 days. 90 days here in my growing area seems to give me the needed brown and green for land enhancement, and cow condition. Even better would be to able to leave a pasture stockpiled overwinter to start spring grazing in tall stuff with green undergrowth. I’ve not been able to pull that one off yet.

          Anything Greg Judy is writing about is worth a look, or anyone who is writing about high density, short duration grazing.

        • November 2, 2012 12:58 pm

          The current issue of Acres (Nov. 2012) has an excellent article by Greg Judy addressing this very topic.

        • November 2, 2012 4:13 pm

          I can’t wait to get my Nov issue…Acres always arrives late with a coffee cup stain 😦 I guess I’m missing the breaking news 😦

        • November 2, 2012 5:42 pm

          LOL. Well, I know of a mail carrier that takes the fast food coupons…

  4. October 31, 2012 10:18 pm

    thanks, its great to see the photos and details, we are just getting to know our property and our grass, but we can already see what you mean. While other people are complaining about our current (typical) lack of spring rain, we cut as much grass as could over our cold dry winter, and we saw fresh green grass as soon as the temperatures increased (the complainers either have no grass left, or have left the tall brown clumps and nothing green can come through). Different climate, same aim. Can’t wait to have the water and fencing set up so we can move the cattle into smaller areas and really get things going. At the moment we are intentionally over-stocked so we can get the grass to a manageable level for our eventual ideal stocking rate to keep it growing well. Its exciting to see it working!

  5. November 1, 2012 2:34 am

    We’ve been doing the rotational since 2008 and stockpiling since 2011. We had what was considered a “drought” in this area this summer. (Nothing compared to yours!) But we had enough pasture in September to feed double the number of cows we usually expect our land to carry. Had it been the normal number, we’d still have cows here until December.

    We’ve made it clear that next year, we only want our usual number of cows, as we have set it up for that. And we will graze from April to December, no problem.

    Amazing the difference it makes to the grass and land!!

  6. November 1, 2012 7:51 am

    Cows. It’s not like you can just trust them to eat the grass. You have to tell them what grass to eat. Like children. “Only one cookie, OK?”

    Then, you get things moving along swimmingly and something shorts out the electric fence and the cows wander out of their daily ration and find other places to nibble. Can’t win.

    Oh, then there are the paths we use to bring the cows to the barn for milking. Our fencing is portable and temporary so our paths are portable and temporary but GEEZ the impact they make on that path. Long-term it may be awesome but I’m worried about next spring.

    • November 1, 2012 8:06 am

      HFS, yeah, for all my MiG stuff for the beef cows, Jane is free-range, & free choice water and hay, less impact on the ground and on the milkmaid 😦 The mud isn’t too bad yet…but then it’s only November we have 6 more months of rain and very little freezing so you get the idea. You think cows are bad, get a horse!

      • November 1, 2012 8:32 am

        Dad keeps 3 pet horses over at the barn. Like big dogs but with more useful manure and it hurts more when they step on you. They destroy everything but the cockleburs and the burdock. They just wear that stuff.

  7. November 1, 2012 8:50 pm

    I always find these posts fascinating. When I read about what you do, I cannot help but compare it to what the Bison did over the Prairies, or the Migrating herbivores on the Savannah. Same concept of large density stocking, for short durations. What always triggered the animals to more to new areas were the rains. With rain came succulent new grass.

    I used to believe our growing season arrived with the heat, but it only really starts once the rains arrive. The sprinkling variety doesn’t cut it – it has to be a good inch.

  8. Elizabeth permalink
    November 4, 2012 4:02 pm

    Dear Matron…
    Every year we have an early hard freeze….usually wipes out my late summer garden….but more importantly I wonder what impact it has on my pastures. We will then have warm-ish days after several days of very cold temps. A little further into fall you can see some green grass under the brown grasses but I’ve heard that a pasture that has experienced a significant freeze doesn’t have the taste or the nutrition that a non-frozen pasture supports. I know my best bet is probably to just observe our livestock but I’m afraid of not catching a change in condition before the cows lose too much weight. I usually begin to feed after a freeze because of this but now I’m wondering if I’m jumping the gun on the extra (expensive) hay and maybe the cows could really continue to hold their weight eating off our pastures after a hard freeze. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    • November 5, 2012 6:25 am

      Elizabeth, the guru of mob stocking Greg Judy grazes right through the cold, and feeds when there is snow cover. Mileage may vary though, he has really good pastures. And the pasture will lose nutrition after a freeze and extended periods of rain. Only you can tell what is working for your cows – check their rumens and if they are full each day they are getting enough to eat, if they aren’t then supplementing with hay is needed. If you live in a brittle area, your winter grass will be more nutritious than if you live in a non-brittle area (more than 30 inches of rain a year.) Your cows are the best guide.

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