Thursday, June 27, 2019

Lake bed

Much of our pasture and planned grazing business is located in what can only be called a lake bed.  It is a large low area with little in the way of elevation change where, especially these last years, the soil stays wet to the top between rain events in much of the pasture.  It is the primary obstacle to increasing the production further.

As evidence of the trend we have at the edge of this area, close to the yard and livestock buildings, a twenty five year old hackberry tree that seems to be struggling.  I cannot diagnose the cause, but suspect overly wet conditions since six of the nine cottonwood trees we managed to start in the pasture twenty years ago look to be dying as well.  A cottonwood dying of too much moisture is a signal event. Cottonwoods love wet soil and prefer to grow there.  Evidently too much water is still too much even for cottonwoods. 

Trees tend to be difficult in a grassland.  This appears to be increasingly true with the overly wet conditions.  And it becomes apparent at the same time we see an increasing need for livestock shade because of the humidity. 

Friday, May 24, 2019

climate change

Climate change is happening.  Farmers who work with higher elevations may be able to deny it.  Those of us on more variable and wetter soils cannot.  I have been aware of it in our farming for twenty years.

The water cycle is impaired.  This is the most obvious.  Excessive rainfall spreads into a huge number of rainy days and it becomes a challenge to walk from house to barn.  Twenty years ago, I "solved" this farm's problems with ground water and excessive wetness by going to grazing on the lowest acres thus firming things up with large and complex perennial root systems.  This idea held for perhaps a decade.  It no longer works.

Today, two days ahead of Memorial Day, I took the herd off the pastures because they were destroying the sod.  I guess we will feed them with the hay crop we couldn't get made last year.  If we can't find hay or alternative grazing, we will have cattle for sale.  This time of year, nearly the first of June, should see the herd unable to keep up with the feed.  Instead we have little grass growth on waterlogged soils because of low temperatures.

The thing is, we know how to begin to solve this.  It is a climate problem because it is a carbon problem.  We have carbon in the wrong place-the atmosphere instead of the soil.  And yes, cars are responsible for this and so is industrial production.  But so is industrial agriculture.  We have spent millenia burning off carbon-organic matter which is 58% carbon-into the air.  The solution has everything to do with learning how to use perennial plants. 

It took us thousands of years to make this mess. We need to be starting in a better direction whether we think we have time or not.  We dare not wait for government!

Sunday, May 19, 2019


Stress levels are zooming here on the farm.  It is not just Trump's fumbling approach to fixing trade deals with China and others that badly need fixing, an approach that loads the sacrifice all on farming and rural America.  It is also the big unadmitted elephant in the room: climate change.

People say that too much rain is preferable to drought.  For at least some of the farms and farmers, that is wrong.  We have had three or four years of not only excessive rain, but an excessive number of rainy days and it leads me to consider my own history here.  In our forty two years now of farming this place we had a significant loss to drought one time-1988.  We have had perhaps twenty years of reduced yields and lost crops to excessive moisture in that time.  Each of these losses is smaller, but cumulatively they add up to much more than the single drought loss.

We are at the 19th of May at this writing.  This is the closing opportunity for planting corn.  We have no corn planted.  Small grains are a waste of time now.  Better to try for a short term one cut annual hay crop and then seed a winter grain for next year.  Soybeans are difficult on our farm.  We are running out of hay due to the lousy hay crops last year.  So the cattle are on the pastures-timely by the calendar, way too early by field conditions.  The grass doesn't grow because it is too cold, the excess rain pools in the hoof prints of the cows, tonight it will freeze while the new calves lie on the wet ground.

Not only have we not planted corn, we have not been able to haul manure out.  The manure is necessary for the corn crop.  Our hog facilities are full to the rafters, so to speak.  If we get enough drying weather to clean them and apply the manure, it will be at the expense of the corn we should be planting.  The manure is beginning to be a health issue. 

And to add insult to injury, the USDA is absolutely clueless about what is going on.  Rather than trying to point farming in a useful direction, to get practices on the land that help sequester carbon and thus somewhat modify the out of control water cycle with its excess precipitation, the agency seems to exist mostly to pass out aid to farmers unnecessarily hurt by the incompetence of government, both at the agency and in the White House and Capitol.

Monday, May 6, 2019


The hardest part of a farming business to learn is the ability to wait.  It is most necessary because the farming is not entirely in the control of the farmer and the farmer must deal with that or go crazy with worry, or possibly do something really stupid that ramifies throughout the crop year and for seasons to come.  Soils, especially those that are heavily clay, can be damaged severely by getting on them too early with tractors.  It is a close timing thing.  What is a good idea tomorrow will damage the land today.
The best that can be said about this is that it encourages humility, something in very short supply in the economy as a whole, not just farming.   

Thursday, April 25, 2019


The woman's voice on the radio as we drove home from Niagara yesterday belonged to a professor at Texas Tech, a climate scientist who works in communicating about climate.  She asserted that we need two things:  One, the scientific knowledge about the climate and the changes that threaten us, and two, some basis for rational hope.

She mentioned regenerative agriculture as one bright spot in view of its ability to, as she put it, sequester carbon.  There is no reason to doubt she is right.  But what nagged at me as I listened, was the thought that some of the climate specialists, those few who would actually talk to farmers, would not carry on a conversation, that is, that they would not ask, listen, and be guided by a serious farmer's thoughts on the matter, guided by his many years of working with and observing a particular piece of land.

It is just this approach that makes farmers so hard to talk to.  And this is important.  We are in desperate need of whatever perspective we can access on climate and we should start by assuming that all answers do not come from the top, or from the lab.  Some answers are available only from people with their hands in the dirt. 

Thursday, April 11, 2019


Snow is crunchy now on top with currently nothing new falling.  The cows are fed in their cramped quarters,the newborn calves are doing OK.  The newly weaned calves have a deep bed of cornstalks on which to spend the night, and the youngstock is standing in mud and snow two feet to thirty inches deep in the livestock lot we determinedly moved out of just a week ago.  There they have water and my promise they will move back out to their hay bales tomorrow morning.  Perhaps tonight we can sleep.


The predicted blizzard has landed with results that are predictable.  While the hogs do pretty well on their straw beds, the cattle, which live in the pasture have had their routines disrupted.  The cows, just starting calving, are crowded together in a half hoop usually used for sows on hastily provided stalk bedding.  They are crowded not by us, but because they are reluctant to go out and face the wind. 

The two calves already born are so far alright, and at last check, no more have arrived.  We hold our breath, hoping for the end of the wind and snow, predicted for sometime Friday morning.  Life, meanwhile, is as difficult for us as for the cows.  This is the second year in a row that blizzards have interrupted the start of calving season.  Last year we had no losses.  We have trouble believing that will be the case again.  Again we talk of holding the bulls away for two or three more weeks, getting calving into May instead.  And again we come up against the knowledge that by doing so we risk putting late calves into the midst of the fly season, seemingly worse every year with heat and humidity in June already.  

The choice to produce the cattle in a more natural way, in synch with the seasons, has consequences.  Especially is this so when Nature herself seems unbalanced and reeling like a drunk on the sidewalk.

But clearer thinking shows that whatever Nature is suffering, the drunk on the sidewalk is none other than us, all of us, with our thoughtless careless use and misuse over generations now of what God has given us.  For a farmer who sees clearly that what we have been doing is wrong, there really is no other choice than to go toward and with Nature.  And to comfort ourselves with the thought that Nature has deeper pockets and deeper and truer aims than any of us.  And that however calving turns out, Nature has a great capacity to regenerate and heal.  It is up to us to do our best to stay out of the way, and to learn to the extent possible, to move and farm in synchrony with Nature