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It is hard to manage drought when nothing is growing

In looming dry years the arrival in our mailbox of government information on how to “manage” drought is more predictable than rain, even if lightning-scarred clouds are already rolling darkly on the horizon.

Community halls are booked and anxious farmers attending are more concerned as to whether or not subsidies, in whatever form, are being contemplated by government, than primed to listen to earnest book-learned instructors mechanically repeating once again how farmers should be able to wring another penny from their bleating dry soil by doing this and that, amid crashing markets for cattle and grains.

At this writing 2010 seems to be shaping up as another intensely dry year in this corner of northeast Alberta. As of the first day of spring we have had 1/3 of an inch of moisture on our yard for the year. A few light snow flurries that went back where they came from at the first rays of the sun, slight showers that stopped only long enough to leave their signature on the land and the one “heavy” shower noted.

The salient point agricultural commentators seem to miss is that a drought cannot actually be “managed.” To “manage” implies control and anyone who believes this is possible is unlikely to be engaged in agriculture beyond gathering sitting down knowledge from a flickering screen connected to other flickering screens.

Such small managing as is possible has to begin years before a prairie drought which essentially reflects a conservative mind set having less to do with dry weather crop administration per se than trying to ameliorate its predictable consequences well in advance.

In cattle ranching we do what we can but most are essentially stop gap measures designed more to buy time than representing any lively hope of being sustainable as a business. The definition of “drought” is a matter of relativity based on soil types as much as measurable rainfall. Sandy soils have virtually no moisture retention capabilities and drought as defined by increased growing stress can begin in a week if no rain falls in the blistering heat of a mid summer clear sky.

Admonition by somber government agents to increasingly rotate pastures in these circumstances ring slightly hollow. Moving cattle from one barren field to another may produce results on paper, but if pasture re-growth has stopped no numbers of rotations will actually do a great deal of good.

Some annual feed and bedding carry over is a given, but to maintain a full second year’s inventory becomes prohibitively costly both in terms of quality depreciation (excluding grain) and the cost of financing these reserves. If the stored feed is hay we’d be feeding two-year-old product as a matter of course rather than as back up, an almost impossible practice to justify from all aspects of prudent management no matter how skillfully reasons are developed. Starting the feeding season with stored hay works well enough as temperatures are relatively moderate, cattle are grass fat and pregnancies have barely begun to affect nutritional requirements.

Roughly in the quarter century we raised cattle, we went through numbers of droughts of varying severity, but each left its footprint (however insignificant at the time) on our land-use program. What we learned to considerable advantage was the clear benefit of sufficient fall plant carry over, drought expectations or otherwise. What might have seemed like wasted forage to drive-by traffic was in fact an investment in next season’s crop.

I/m not persuaded there is much difference in spring snow melt moisture delivery from bare to stubble land that isn’t compensated for

in one decent shower. Topography and wind shelter is as large a factor in snow deposits as anything else. Hollows on the downside of prevailing winds will fill and hill tops will be bare or close to it no matter what we do, but I am firmly persuaded the roots of plants that have had time to regenerate before freeze up have a much livelier possibility of being viable in spring both in rapidity of initial growth and following leaf volume.

Our objective in leaving as much carry over as we did was two fold — the most obvious being potential moisture but of equal or perhaps even more importance was the insulating value of snow pack on the soil. We never found a hilltop producing as much hay as adjacent low spots, and while the attraction of water to low areas is automatic, we found that hill tops were invariably slower in regeneration in spring than plants further down. One could, and we do argue, the benefits of residual moisture, but in wet springs this should have balanced out. It never did. Snow is an excellent blanket for heat retention and when winter temperatures drop to 40 below plant roots need all the help they can get.

Plants that have been kissed back to the roots have so little food reserves as to be none and it is only their inherent will to live that brings them above the soil in spring at all, never mind flourishing in abundance. In the event of soil-searing heat plants sheltered by the previous year’s stem, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, will none the less have a considerable advantage over gopher-ravaged pastures in off setting the corrosive effects of a drying sun and dehydrating winds.

An innovation we tried a few years ago was to winter graze horses on carry over pasture and as an experiment it went well. Our concerns about winterkill were largely misplaced, as it seemed the snow moved about by horses digging for forage was returned in any given spot by further digging. We lost the insulation value of untrammeled snow, but the results of this one season’s trial were of sufficient comfort that we will certainly do so again.

The practical limitations here are a timely snow pack of optimum depth. Too shallow a cover and there is insufficient snow for re-covering bare ground and too deep a snow pack prevents horses finding enough feed to maintain condition. It is clearly a balancing act, but one that could be used advantageously for part of the season if not the entire winter. In our trial the following year’s pasture was actually improved and the cost of feed for the horses was zero.

Were we to return to cattle ranching, however, we would do one thing differently for sure. We would move to silage as our primary feed.

There is significantly more flexibility in the range of feeds available. Farmers are able to utilize cropland (their own or their neighbour’s) as a source in dry years and carryover stocks are minimally impaired in quality should stocks need to be accumulated as longer stage reserves.

Immediate negatives are the requirement of specialized equipment both for harvesting and feeding, but farmers intent on remaining in the cow-calf industry might well explore their options using silage when faced with dry years, actual or potentially. It won’t solve the water shortage problems in dugouts or that of winter bedding, but it will certainly go a long ways toward providing relief in matters of reliable feed supplies (year round if necessary) at comparatively sustainable cost.

Stan Harder is a mostly retired Angus breeder living at St. Brides, Alta. You can email him at [email protected]

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