CONVERSATIONS WITH THE LAND
My daughter, our youngest, came to visit overnight with her brood of four in tow. It was dark and I startled her coming up to the house on my way from shutting in the chickens for the night.
“How do you do that?” She demanded. “Walk around in the dark without a flashlight?”
I told her that it was long familiarity with the place. I said I didn’t need a light because my body knew every inch of this farm. I finished, rather lamely I suppose, by saying that “It amounts to love, finally.”
Whatever the truth or fancifulness of that, it is so that my fascination with the place increases daily as I age. Among the many things that interest me about my life and everything that surrounds it, my interest in what this place is going to do next is chief. Late in life I have begun to hunger for the names and habits of plants and animals that I now know I have lived surrounded by and had always taken for granted. I want to know what they want, if that is the proper way to think of it, what their lives consist of, why they are here and what pleases them about their immediate surroundings. And especially is this so lately regarding the changes in the weather, or climate if you will and the response of the farm to those changes.
This summer, for the third consecutive year we have had rainfall that can only be described as excessive. This summer has featured an extraordinary surplus of rainy days in addition to the heavy amounts of rain, making field work nearly impossible. It is difficult not to see that some of the rainy days are a blessing in disguise as nearby areas have in the process been hit with five to seven or eight inch rainfalls in the course of a single night. We have essentially been missed by the heaviest of the precipitation. Other related things are different. Humidity readings stay above fifty percent pretty reliably. It does not drop off a day or so after a rainfall. The wind does not blow. Consequently, the house does not cool overnight and in the mornings. These things are unexpected here where we have sayings about the prairie winds (There goes Grandma, bucking the wind again!) Traditionally we have expected occasional humidity readings of seventy percent or higher, but at least as frequently, twenty percent or less. We expect thunderstorms complete with electric light shows in the sky and the occasional tornado, but not every week. It seems as if the elements of our weather are stuck and we are on constant replay.
The pasture project is the only thing we have going here that has been working well in the excessive rain. But the cattle have compacted some of the lower areas and the higher traffic zones. I know this because of the increasing size and hardness of the callous in the center of my right hand, which I use to push in the fiberglass rod posts we use to subdivide the grazing, but also because of the plants I see. We have not had much problem with ragweed, either the common or the giant, which befouls so much organic planting, but we do now. It is ragweed that shows up in the entire paddock nearest the lowest and wettest area of the pasture. It appears to like compaction. We have always had patches of Canadian thistle wherever the cattle have torn up the sward eating a hay bale or where several bulls are tussling. Canada thistle is useful in fixing small areas of compaction with the taproot, but I doubt that ragweed will be. Cattle will eat the buds off thistles, but they avoid ragweed like the plague.
It is this general trend of wetness that has increased our problems with compaction on our heavy clay soils. Some farmers have taken to coping with this by rotating their grazing in and out of a year of crop production, enabling the use of primary tillage, usually a plow or heavy chisel plow. I question the usefulness of that approach on our farm, as any new seeding we do seems overrun with weeds for several years before coming back into production with good forage. Perhaps we have too large a weed seed bank. Presumably some of the neighbors think so.
It all must be viewed in the framework of what we think the trend is going to be for the coming years. If it is going to be continued wet, we have to look at real and major changes here as the land is quite low lying and the soil composition is not at all porous and fast draining. It is quite possible that some of the areas lower in elevation will begin to revert to the sloughs and wetlands they were before we whites came here, and that we will not be able to engineer a solution. After all, water only leaves a place by running to a lower place or by evaporation, on its own or through a plant.
Of course, if this wet trend is to be followed by a dry one, we would be best served by not being too rash in the solutions we devise today. There was drought here in 1988 reducing crop yields by more than two thirds. With that in mind, it seems that a good approach to the ragweed would be to try to control the seed production by early enough mowing, and to till the heaviest infestations followed by a seeding of Reed’s Canary grass. This grass, where we have it currently, allows no ragweed or thistle either in its stand. Once established, which will be after several very weak years, it can be very aggressive, to the point that it will be difficult to get a clover to thrive as companion. White clover seems to have worked the best for us; Alsike survives the wet conditions better, but is low growing and short lived, two or three years at the most. Canary grass will do well on higher and dryer ground too if it gets a few years time to colonize those swards.
We can get low alkaloid versions of the Canary grass which are quite a bit more palatable than the common type, but it still makes better cow feed than for growing livestock. And a real advantage of the older stands of Reed’s Canary is that they form a thick loose sod which will stand up under animal traffic that would otherwise pug the soil. I cannot imagine a compacted soil under a stand of Canary grass.
So we could let a few wetter acres produce cow feed rather than high octane finisher grass. It seems contrary to willingly give up striving for top production. The attitude is pretty deeply ingrained in us farmers. But perhaps affection teaches what school and reading, or even experience cannot always. Perhaps asking the farm what it wants is the question with which I should always have started.