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Animal Health Notebook

Chicken Little, part II

If we stop fearing the falling sky and start planning for healthy plants, soil and water cycle, the world looks much better.

At almost any point in time, lack of moisture (or sometimes flooding) is a major issue of concern for 40-60% of U.S. cattle producers.

These tendencies go up as you get into areas with more than 35-inch average rainfall. When things are not deemed normal, they cry like Chicken Little that “the sky is falling,” because of moisture deficit.

This time I will list practical proofs of conditions that quickly repair the situation of no grass growth. Remember that with few exceptions both drought and flooding are manmade/man-caused, and both prevent growth of quality forage. Good grass does not grow without moisture, but neither does it grow in fields that are waterlogged or "ponded" for several consecutive days.

When we get an understanding of the water cycle to the point most every management decision we enact centers on improvement, we will see a dramatic healing in two to five years. East of Interstate 35 it is routine to observe huge changes in one growing season.

A highly functional water cycle requires these nine things:

  1. A highly diverse landscape and pastures, with plant diversity that contains 50 or more species per acre and often approaches 150.
  2. Tall, high-energy, deep-rooted perennial C4 grasses. Annual plants should be in minority.
  3. Medium-height warm-season grasses, legumes and forbs and often herbs.
  4. Short grasses, legumes, and forbs that have substantial root systems going six or more inches in depth.
  5. A healthy cool-season component.
  6. Short-timed disturbance and severe grazing following complete plant recovery. This grazing will seldom need to be practiced more than five or six times during four or five growing seasons. With few exceptions most native dominant pastures need to be grazed no more than once during the growing season. A May graze followed by a late August-to-September graze might be good every three to five years in higher-moisture country.
  7. Winter grazing must be managed so as to limit the disturbance and move quickly. Ground litter and standing plants should be very substantial through the first 25-30% of the next growing season. Standing dry matter is very important to animal health and production in the spring.
  8. Increasing levels of soil organic matter to depths of 30 inches or more. I realize that if you are less than a foot from the rock that this will take more than two years.
  9. Increasing soil microbe and macro life to levels of two-plus tons per acre and likely to more than 10 tons per acre during sweet seasons. Extending the number of days of soil activity is a very big deal.

A highly functional water cycle is likely the easiest measurement of progress. When we raise the organic matter (OM) 1% we add another 25,000 gallons of water holding to our ground -- this is an average, and the actual amount depends on the type of soil. Good ground with high plant diversity as discussed can grow a ton of dry matter (three tons of forage) with as little as four to five inches of moisture.

Remember that organic matter and its major component, carbon, are not long-term storable. They are being used and cycled. The principle of “use it or lose it” is very pertinent.

Our job on a daily basis is to grow the function of the water cycle. It just happens to be one of the biggies to health of our cattle and our profitability.

Walt Davis often says that a well-managed ranch is in the business of promoting life and marketing the excess production on a regular basis. To be profitable, he says, we are forced to this at very low cost of production. A highly functional water cycle is the result of our management decisions and execution toward this end.

You can improve your water cycle and gain the advantages, but you must separate yourself from the crowd. Remember if none of the other critters Chicken Little encountered had believed her false story, there would have been no tale to tell. The sky was not falling.

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