Last summer, our land was in D4 status for at least one month. D4 status, for those who don’t wait for the Drought Monitor update each Thursday, means exceptional drought. D4 status refers to widespread crop and pasture loss and water shortages in streams and wells. This creates water emergencies.
Last year saw a decline in soybean and corn yields. We also saw impacts on our pastures. Our cows, calves as well as chickens and hogs are rotated grazed on perennial grasses. If we didn’t have livestock, some of that land would be used for row crops. The other land we pasture is either rocky and hilly or creeks and trees and wouldn’t be well suited to row crop agriculture.
We decided not to graze one the pastures we added last year to our operation because it needed rest, especially during the drought. This pasture had been overgrazed in the past. Insufficient soil moisture resulted in little plant growth or recovery after the 2020-21 season. Another 250 acres we planned to custom graze dried up so fast and so early we weren’t able to put cattle out to graze it. We harvested hay on 250 acres early in the growing season and then rested the land for the rest of the season.
These decisions were made because we want to preserve the pastures for future grazing. Overgrazing the grass can cause damage to the root system, which will set us back for the future. We’ve made a long-term investment in keeping armor on the soil.
We believe that the soil surface should be covered with armor, also known as green cover. It lowers soil temperatures and feeds the soil biology, which results in successful crop production.
We’ve learned that one teaspoon of soil contains more living organisms than there are people in the world.
Over the past few years, we’ve traveled thousands of miles to attend conferences and seminars on rotational grazing, cover crops and soil health. We implemented the practices and first noticed the changes on our pastureland, and now we’re attempting to change things on our cash crop fields, too.
Our ability to hold rainwater is the biggest change we have seen. Instead of washing gullies into fields and moving soil, we’re able to infiltrate water where it falls. We’ve planted cover crops since before they were called cover crops, and we’ve changed our water infiltration rates from less than one inch to eight inches to 12 inches per hour. On one piece of ground, our water infiltration rate was as high as 30 inches.
We started planting what people call cover crops — a non-cash crop between growing seasons — as forage for our cattle herd. We didn’t realize what soil covering did for the land until the big rains forced us to pay attention to soil health.
Our goal is to have plants that are diverse and able to grow as well as plants that can feed each other. There’s more and more research being done on that. With more diversity, you’re more likely to have better plant survival as different plants thrive in different conditions.
We’re doing our best to educate people on soil health practices and how farmers can change things. We are convinced that how we farm and manage the land will make a difference in the climate crisis we are currently experiencing.
Water is the most constraining factor in grazing, especially when there is drought. The natural waters that we depend on were either dried up or inaccessible to livestock last year.
If the Legislature passes drought aid, we will look into applying for a grant to add water infrastructure to our permanent pastures. Drought assistance could also help farmers buy hay for their livestock and allow them to rest their soils.
We believe we manage our pastures and crop acres as an ecosystem. This system provides healthy feed for livestock, healthy crops that can be marketed, and healthy soils that store carbon and improve the environment. It also helps to make the farm more profitable.
We’ll find out how the results of our management decisions last year affect available pasture and forage this year.