This year’s drought has laid additional stresses on the farm. Everything is harder without water. The well for our house has been completely dry for two months. The pasture plants didn’t produce anywhere close to normal growth, so our grazing season ended prematurely. We needed to dip into our winter stores of grass hay earlier than ever. We’re not anywhere close to Grapes of Wrath-style suffering, but going through these months with far-below-average precipitation sure makes us feel vulnerable.
But in the spirit of looking for silver linings, the story isn’t all about the despair of dry ground. The dry ground is opening up some new opportunities. I have talked on several occasions about how the back of the farm has much lower fertility than the rest of the land. This year, we have a special opportunity to make some changes to dramatically improve the soil health for our least productive ground.
Cows, Manure, and Soil Organic Matter
One of our tools for building soil fertility is to park the cattle on a restricted area during the dormant season and to feed grass hay bales in that spot. This creates a nice heavy mat of manure and trampled hay. It might look like we’re just making a mess, but we’re setting up the soil for a powerful boost. By the time spring rolls around, all of this material will be incorporated back into the soil by the work of worms, beetles, flies, and fungi. Living soil can be thought of as a digestive system, capable of consuming biological material and integrating everything into itself. The manure and any uneaten hay will become part of the unseen subterranean life of the farm.
We know we’re improving things if we see Soil Organic Matter rising. This is something we can measure when we do soil sampling. When we send our soil samples to the lab, they separate the base geological minerals from the carbon-based living components. Organic matter gives us a way to measure the living components of soil. As organic matter increases, biology increases. This is a fundamental yardstick by which we can judge the health of our soil.
In normal years the autumn rains and early winter snows create a band of soggy, puddled ground. With our heavy clay soils, this wet zone effectively cuts off our access to the rear fields. But this year the ground has remained as firm underfoot as it would be in high summer. So we moved the herd all the way out back and we’ve been dropping bales for them to graze, moving them in a tight checkerboard pattern across these pastures.
Most people don’t get excited about poop, but around here it can be a topic for discussion and joy. Rachel and I have been noting our encouragement at the amount of manure we’re finding laid down across the ground. This is going to create some long-term gains for the soil organic matter levels in these fields, improving the quality of the grasses we’re growing and, amazingly, even working to reduce the degree to which future droughts can affect this land. As the soil improves, it will — somewhat counterintuitively — become better at retaining water during a drought and better at draining water during wet times. This is really powerful change.
To a degree that is hard to convey to anyone who isn’t daily living with thoughts about soil health, we’re delighted at the idea that our current drought could be used to strengthen the farm against a future drought. This is all about managing cows that are eating grass grown by sunlight. It’s cow-powered, solar-powered soil renewal, all done without tearing up the ground, spreading synthetic fertilizers, or spraying pesticides.