Gene Logsdon and Friends

Curious Observations About The Drought

In Gene Logsdon Blog on August 8, 2012 at 7:05 am

From GENE LOGSDON

To keep from becoming too depressed over the drought, I try to find lessons to learn from it, like trying not to be envious when rain falls on nearby farms but not ours. Two occurrences in my pastures suggest a teeny bit of optimism, but they run contrary to the way I usually think about pasture farming. That is to say, both occurrences involve plants whose names up to now have been hard for me to say out loud without prefixing them with cuss words.

I do not much like tall fescue and I don’t think my sheep do either. The day I took the advice of experts and planted the stuff is the day I quit taking advice of experts. Because of a combination of very wet weather in April and other complications, I could not mow the fescue as I usually do until it was so tall and rank that my old rotary mower couldn’t handle it. It went to seed, the worst possible scenario in my estimation. But when there was nothing else to graze but old fescue stems in July, the sheep seemed to do okay. It appeared that they were eating the ripe fescue seed heads. Not quite believing my eyes, I called a friend in West Virginia who knows lots of weird things and who grazes livestock too. He responded with alacrity. “Oh yes, sheep will eat fescue seed like it was grain.” The upshot was that I could put off feeding expensive supplemental hay a little longer.

The books say that mowing fescue is not necessary to encourage a lush second growth for winter grazing (when fescue is more palatable). It will grow back from the roots just fine without mowing.The reason we mow, say some experts, is to make the pastures look nicer. Nor is my fear that fescue will take over a pasture and crowd out better forage necessarily true either, at least not here in northern Ohio where fescue is not native. My front pasture and a brother-in-law’s pasture, both once heavy with fescue, have now gone mostly to bluegrass and white clover with grazing and occasional mowing. It appears that when the fescue (or any other grass) saps the available nitrogen from the soil, clover will gain ascendency to put nitrogen back into the soil.

I can’t completely account for another happy occurrence directly related to the drought. I disked the strips where I grew open-pollinated corn last year and planted red clover in May. Then the dry weather set in and not one of the clover seeds sprouted. But on these bare strips there suddenly appeared in July, in the driest of the dry time, a lush green growth that looked like new wheat in spring. Unfortunately, I couldn’t graze it because it was right next to this year’s corn strips. There were two grasses involved. Quack grass and what we have always called barnyard millet. But the latter may be meadow foxtail. When I get out the books and try to identify plants, I am almost always confused because the descriptions and the pictures never look quite like the actual plants I am examining. These two grasses always come up in our pastures in late summer, but never such a nice stand as this. I just don’t get it.

If the corn doesn’t make ears this year, as seems likely in my case, I can turn the sheep in to eat the corn foliage and the grasses and still not have to feed expensive hay. The drought has ruined lots of corn this year. But the stalks and leaves still make good feed if the nitrogen content is not too high. More traditional livestock-grain farmers can take advantage of this emergency situation. They can chop and feed their crippled corn as silage. Or if they have fences around their fields, they can turn livestock in to do the harvesting themselves and maybe save as much money as the corn would have made in a good year, by not having to harvest, haul, dry, and store the stuff. At least the livestock would survive until the rains return. Rain will come again, won’t it?
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  1. I dearly hope the country’s stunted corn will wisely be used as feed. Thanks for continuing to plant that wisdom.

  2. Having not mowed the lawn for all of July, the rye in the mix did what it could to put up 6″ seed stalks. I looked out the kitchen window the other day and what do I see but a little flock of sparrows jumping on the stalks to hold them to the ground, then stripping the tiny seed like corn on the cob.

  3. A contrarian drought? ^-^

    Will rain come back indeed? Scientists say that this year’s and last year’s droughts were freak events, but that we’ll see more such freak events. That was two years in a row. Three is lucky?
    http://arstechnica.com/science/2012/08/warm-extremes-in-earths-climate-becoming-more-common/

  4. I drove through your region a week ago, trying to imagine the impact the drought was bringing and will bring. Your observations make it even more real. Thanks for the window.

  5. I had a conservation service consultant once show me a list of various plant nutritional properties. Seems that some of the weeds we hate are actually quite good nutritionally. My sheep ate surprising things..milkweed, ironweed, grain heads from all kinds of grasses, and with relish giant ragweed. My goats love any thing with spines…thistles, multiflora rosa, locust seedlings. Nature is wise…providing food for grazers in all kinds of weather conditions if we farmers just keep our noses out!

  6. Critters are like humans — they do best on a varied diet. My milk cow has been off her feed a bit the last week or so. Nothing specific, just not her usual voracious self. The cows went walkabout on the big pond dam the other day — a place that we usually keep them out of and that hasn’t been grazed in a couple of years, so it has lots of stuff not available in the pasture. My Jersey came back from that little excursion with her rumen bulging and the next morning she tore into her grain as she usually does. Obviously, she just needed a little tonic in the form of forbidden fodder. I just ran across this one; I’m going to start teaching my cows to eat that blankety-blank star thistle! http://www.livestockforlandscapes.com/cowmanagers.htm

  7. The weeds blow me away this year. Everything else is struggling, and the lambsquarter is about six feet high! Foxtail doesn’t seem to have gotten the word either. Velvetleaf is trying to compete with the lambsquarter. Can’t understand why anyone would ever grow kale – lambsquarter is about as good for you, and you can hardly keep the stuff down.

  8. Timely, I noticed that I had William A Albrecht’s “The Drought Myth” on my reading list. Has anyone read what he has to say?

    Here in middle Tennessee, the early corn was lost (we had no rain in June), but late planted corn enjoyed a wet July. I’ve tried a field corn called Bloody Butcher for the first time this year–to feed to the chickens this winter. It looks pretty good so far.

    • Betty Taylor, I have not read that book of Albrecht’s but I have always thought a book by that title would be appropriate because so often what we call drought is really humans stretching the limits of a dry climate beyond its capabilities. It is fairly well documented that the “advancing desert” of the Sahara is man made, not nature made, as overpopulation and war pressure people to overgraze, over cultivate and misuse the land. Gene

      • I googled “The Drought Myth” and it is not a book but a 2-page essay that I was able to read online. Basically it talks about how good fertility can make soil more drought tolerant.

  9. Fescue is good forage if one can keep it from going to seed in late May or early June when fescue toxicity is a big problem. It has an ergot fungus related to LSD that is in the seed heads. I prefer timothy, red clover and alfalfa for drought resistant forages.

    Sorghum-sudangrass hybrid is cheap to plant and also grows well in drought conditions but one needs to manage it properly to avoid prussic acid issues if it is grazed too short or gets hit by a frost. Bale it up and let it ferment a little to be safe. I creates large quantities of biomass and will shoot up after a little rain.

    Red clover is best frost seeded in March in zone 5 and 6 or planted in wheat when it is top dressed in later February or early March. I would never plant it in May or June. Teff is another grass that will do good in drought but a challenge to establish as it needs a very firm and fine seedbed. It is native to Africa.

    I do not think we know if it will be “normal’ weather again. Mankind has dumped so many pollutants into the atmosphere and most people do not believe in man-made climate change anymore or are in denial. They are foolish. I am preparing for the worst and installing K-Line irrigation pods on my land later this month with a new and deeper well.

    Someone mentioned weeds. Yes, they can be very nutritious and also toxic if eaten too much by some animals. I do not deal well with weeds however and prefer domesticated forages. I leave a few for the butterflies and birds but otherwise kill 90% of them.

    I am a grazing and forage specialist for NRCS.

  10. Quack grass is a common problem for wheat growers in the dry regions. IOW, its likes dry growing conditions.

  11. While attending the Careyfest, I ventured to one of my favorite places of my youth, the Springville Marsh, just north of Carey. The dry summer has turned it into the Springville Meadow; not a sign of water anywhere. It was a shock. On the southwest corner of the hiking path an old twin cottonwood had been blown over by the storms, and it had the largest root ball I’ve ever seen. It is 16 feet tall, and maybe 20 feet wide. Very impressive: it must have been a very strong wind.

  12. Gene, It’s good to know I’m not the only one confused when looking at plant/weed books. They never look like the pictures. And I’m even worse with birds…they seem to fly away before I can match them up to a photo.
    I’m looking forward to seeing you at Jandy’s Garlic Festival this weekend.

  13. Our drought here doesn’t compare to some we’ve seen in the areas west of here, but one plant that has been totally unphased by any amount of heat and dryness is Bocking #4 Comfrey. I planted this as forage for my chickens and it just keeps growing. Purslane is another weed that the chickens like and it seems to revel in the dry heat.
    We’ve always had a rain barrel or two under the downspouts, but managed to score a 300 gallon plastic tote and we’re using that now. Blueberries need a lot of water to do well and this makes it easy.

    I think that people in the urban areas don’t understand how terribly dependent they are on the crops of rural America. This drought and the resulting high prices and, God forbid, shortages, might finally drive the point home.

  14. I also get very confused looking at pictures of grass, and some grass species seem to look different than the same in other regions.
    On weeds, my animals would be starving if I had been mowing them, instead we just brought 4 goats home since we will be light on cattle until it rains. Also we will see how well some Highland cattle truly forage. The pond is empty and has lots of lush green grass where there used to be water, we will be grazing that to buy some time before we start laying out hay.

  15. Gene, I know this is off subject, but I just read an old Wendell Berry essay that I think was originally published in the mid ’80’s about why he chose not to purchase or use a computer, but this essay was republished in ‘The Art of the Commonplace’ a couple of years ago. Am I correct in assuming that he still abstains? Thought you would know. And if so, my respect for him will double, which I didn’t think possible until reading that essay.

  16. Fescue is a morphing grass,take a poor run down mineral depleted field top dress it with N and Fescue will put down a heavy growth not much of a feed because there is still no mineral content in the soil for it to uptake and the Fescue will have large coarse blades.On the other hand
    if Fescue is planted on well mineralized ground the blades will be tender and narrow and quite good forage.As you experienced as the ground is improved and organic matter increases in the soil Ladino Clover,Orchard Grass,Blue Grass and others will take over and choke out the Fescue.On the subject of drought my farm here in Virginia has never had toxic chemcials applied on the fields and grows a wide variety of plants none of which I have ever planted,when drought comes a whole different group of plants emerge such as Switch grass and Blue Stem and I guess the seed has been in the ground for years just waiting for its moment those that use chemicals are hurting themselves in the long run I think and their fields are a whole lots less interesting.

    • Gary, I am really glad to read your remarks about fescue. They coincide with mine but it is much better to have someone else’s experience to back up personal observation. Thank you. Gene

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