Do We Irrigate Pastures?

We love all the questions folks ask us about our operation and animals, and when we can we try to explain in deeper detail. This week I wanted to write about an interesting question I got at the farmers market recently. It was the first time we’ve been asked this and though not a common question I thought it would be a good topic to dig into. A customer came up to the tent at market and saw the picture below. As you can see the cows are walking into a nice, thick, and tall stand of green grass, and they’re excited about it! The question posed was, “do you irrigate your pastures or just reply on rain when it comes”? Excellent question! And the short answer is no, we do not irrigate any of our pastures. Why would we irrigate our pastures? Obviously, keeping pastures irrigated would be a big help in maintaining grass growth through the summer and any drought conditions we experience. And before we go too far, I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong about irrigating pastures. It’s fairly common in more arid climates around the world. It all comes back to personal context, irrigation is a “tool in the toolbox” and if you need it you use it! There are plenty of advantages to irrigating, especially in those areas out west where the average annual rainfall is in the single digits! They need a little help to get the grass growing! In our area, we tend to get enough annual rain that we can avoid the need to irrigate pastures. Other practices can help! We’ve talked a lot about our rotational grazing, soil health principles, and allowing our pastures to have adequate rest time. Through rotational grazing our animals are moving constantly which helps minimize compaction to the soil in areas allowing it to absorb moisture better. One of the key soil health principles is maintaining cover on the ground which is accomplished by not letting the animals stay in an area too long and allowing that pasture to rest before grazed again. This cover helps in 2 ways. First, the roots of the plants and that above ground cover minimize runoff and slow down the water as it flows. Secondly, that continued cover helps keep the sun from reaching the soil’s surface minimizing the evaporation of water from the soil keeping it in the soil for use. All of these practices continue to help us retain more rainfall at each rain event, thus reducing our water loss and helping our pastures stay green and lush longer! I have heard stories of ranchers out west who have been able to reduce or eventually eliminate the need for irrigating their pastures as they have adopted these practices and been able to change their soil conditions. Now, that took a long time! In most cases 20 or more years to get such drastic change. And while we are benefiting from our new practices and are seeing increased water retention….we’re not perfect. Our grass doesn’t always look so good! We have dry spells, and we have times when the grass doesn’t want to grow. The above referenced picture was taken August 20th, 2022. So not too bad for the heat of summer…but that was just that pasture, others didn’t look so good! We’re always making changes, trying new grasses, working to improve our herd genetics to continue to work within our context. This summer a lot of folks are predicting a drought for our area, and couple that with we have more animals on the farm than ever before….we will be getting tested this summer. So, to summarize my ramblings, irrigation has its place. It doesn’t fit within our context, but not using it presents its own challenges to us as well!

Food Security and Nutrition Density Relies on How We Farm

People often ask me why we care so much about soil as cattle and hog farmers. We’re not planting crops or trying to harvest fruits and veggies, so why do we worry so much about the soil? For me, the answer is simple. Without healthy soil, we can’t have healthy animals. We often refer to ourselves as grass farmers instead of livestock farmers. Because the quantity AND quality of available forage determines our success in raising livestock. So, while we do raise livestock, an immense amount of thought and care goes into our pastures and forages. So, what does that have to do with food security? I was reading a recent article on Innovation Forum about this and the second paragraph stated: “Industrial farming techniques, which have largely prioritized yield over resilience, and the climate change impacts they contribute towards, have already left around a third of the world’s soils degraded. This puts our global food supply at serious risk. A recent FAO report found that up to 828 million people already face chronic hunger globally. With hunger comes malnutrition, and a host of dangerous deficiencies and health impacts. For the food system to provide nutrition and food security in a warming world with a ten billion-plus human population, agricultural transformation through regenerative and sustainable approaches is crucial.” They go on to discuss in more detail how industrial farming has compromised the nutrient density of our food. And that regenerative agriculture focuses on “…outcomes that improve water and air quality, enhance ecosystem biodiversity, store carbon, and produce nutritious food. Sustainable nutrition encompasses accessible, affordable, safe, and equitable diets, which support the earth and its resources.” Read the full article here. Soil Health Principles There are 6 principles of soil health taught by the Soil Health Academy.  1. Know your context. (Your principles and goals determine your stewardship of the land)2. Minimize mechanical and chemical disturbance. (Nature doesn’t till or apply chemicals)3. Maintain cover and build surface armor. (The top of the soil is like its skin; it needs to be protected)4. Biodiversity. (Nature doesn’t work in a monoculture.)5. Keep living roots in the soil. (The soil is an ecosystem and relies on roots and microorganisms to continue to grow.)6. Integrate livestock. (Nature relies on animal impact to continue to regenerate the soils) Industrial agriculture, which took it’s hold in the late 1800’s, sought to increase crop yields by applying fossil fuels energy, mechanization, advanced crop breeding methods, and synthetic applications (i.e. – fertilizers and sprays). An excerpt from the book “Agroecosystem Diversity” indicates “Industrial agriculture has had great success in producing abundant, low-cost food…But this success has come with costs that raise questions about the sustainability and the unintended effects of the global “rationalization” of food production. Environmental costs include the degradation of groundwater, surface water, soils, and biologic diversity. Social costs include a growing rural-urban divide, a worldwide obesity epidemic, and antibiotic resistance.” You can read more here. The excerpt goes on to discuss how through various governmental promotions, accidents in history, and other path dependencies have set this industrial agricultural system in motion. The question is, now that we have it, how can we change it? There’s a lot of financial backing in continuing to farm in an industrialized fashion regardless of any of the consequences on food or ecosystem health. We are proud to say we practice regenerative agriculture and continue to follow the soil health principles. We don’t know it all. We don’t always get it right. But we’re trying, and by following the soil health principles, we are working every day to continue to improve our little place in the world and hopefully influence others around us to take heed and follow along as well.