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Animal Health Notebook

More thoughts on the water cycle

Boltoch-iStock-Thinkstock flooded pasture
Flooding is a symbol of problems with soil health and permeability. Solving those problems brings many benefits.
Fixing the water cycle on our land is a big fixer of many things.

A friend wanted to go with me back in mid-November to see what I was up to in a jungle of forage close to two of his farms.

It had rained almost six inches a week earlier. The results across a wide area were acres of flat fields and pasture with ponding of water for two to five days, followed by a bunch of dead forage over multiple farms.

My friend, whom we'll call A.M., pointed out that a neighbor was holding water for a pond he didn't have to dig. Then I pointed across the fence to his field that had a similar look, since the grass was dead from drowning. I commented that the water cycle on neither farm was functioning, but he didn't seem interested.

The truth is that seven acres of a six-inch rain were running to the one acre or larger area and standing there for several days. Six inches of rain at 27,000 gallons/inch/acre X 7 acres = 1.13 million gallons or so. Much of the soil life drowned. Grazing days annually on such areas are near zero. The hills had a lack of moisture for fescue growth in less than five days after the six-day rain event. The cause is a broken water cycle. The effect is a severe loss of plant growth, grazing days and profitability.

Water moving across the surface and through the organic layer takes a large amount of the plant growth drivers down the hill (calcium being number one). The same happens to much of the carbon in the top of the soil profile. Ditto the same for nitrogen, earthworms and millions of pounds of soil life. If they are left in water for more than short periods they are mostly lost. "Weeds" will follow and attempt to reopen the clay. Chances are good that the land manager will kill the weeds and the ground will remain almost worthless for a season. Most new growth will be shallow, short-lived rescue grasses. Then there will be another six-inch rain event and repetition of the above.

I have recently been reading of a dilemma that early farmers had when they settled in Middle Tennessee. The soil was so deep, rich and vibrant in most areas -- including hillsides -- that the European wheat they planted would grow tall and fall to the ground and rot before harvest. They quickly changed to growing corn and plowed away the ground and lots of fertility before growing most small grains. Corn meal, not wheat flour, was their staple for bread. Wheat flour was mostly imported and a real biscuit was a Sunday treat, as flour was five to six times the cost of corn meal.

It did not take long to wreck the water cycle and severely reduce soil fertility. Our county was deep and rich with soil in 1806 when the first settlers arrived. It was largely gullied out before the turn of the century.

In the past few years with the introduction of low-impedance electric fence energizers, step-in posts and poly wire we have learned how to graze cattle in high densities. Our best teaching likely came from Africa where tight herding was practiced for centuries when labor was readily available and big predators were plentiful. North Americans made fairly short order of wolves and bears and constantly plowed our ground. The fertility left. Animal health was close behind.

The new predator is electricity and with a little knowledge, use and repetition is capable of quickly rebuilding our landscape, forage base and water cycle. Incidentally, animal health follows shortly behind.

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