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So, Which Is It – Drought Planning or Weed Management?

By   /  July 16, 2018  /  2 Comments

John Marble plans for drought every year and some years, like this one, he has to implement that plan. Now, he’s seeing some real changes in the weed component of his pastures, making him wonder – is he managing for drought or to get rid of weeds?

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Let me admit this right up front: I’m not all that organized. I feel like I should have a big notebook with little plastic dividers, each section filled with specific guidance on some critical Ranch Management area. Grass Management. Custom Grazing. Marketing. Habitat Projects. Finance. And probably about ten more. Sorry, I just can’t seem to get that done.

Still, I do have some scribbled reminders that wind up kicking me into action, and perhaps the most critical one is my Drought Plan. The “Plan” goes something like this:

When my anxiety level about soil moisture, weather patterns, sward conditions (and a few other, less identifiable issues) grows to the point of sleep-losing obsession, I make critical decisions about de-stocking. This is not as hard as it sounds, as I have designed a Stocking Plan that includes a minimum of 33% animals that are fairly easy to liquidate: yearlings, custom grazers, dry cows. This year, I began staring at the sky and mumbling to myself about half way through the heart of our growing season. Soon enough, my wife said: “Better get rid of some cows.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

The yearlings left two weeks ahead of schedule. I cancelled a load of summer-grazing custom cows. I weeded through the cow herd a bit, sending some pretty good cows to the butcher pen. It hasn’t really rained in the mean time, but I’m sleeping pretty well.

This focus on drought might seem strange to some folks. After all, I live in western Oregon, a region renowned for being wet and green. We get about 50 inches of rain each year. So what’s the big deal about drought?

Technically speaking, a drought is an unexpected, extended period with little or no precipitation. In this part of the world, we typically have a long, wet winter, a transitional period in the spring and a long blistering summer with virtually no rain for at least 100 days. The transitional period in the spring—only about 60 days, really—is when we grow the majority of our grass for the year. When rainfall slows to a crawl in April and May, as it did this year, I know it’s going to be a very difficult summer ahead. Whether that qualifies as a drought, I don’t know. But my response this year was classic Drought Management: Heavy de-stocking which led to leaving more residual grass in each paddock as the herd moves through the grazing rotation. The result of this strategy is the rapid accumulation of a large bank of moderate quality grass, which includes the last gasps of re-growth, mixed with some tough-looking summer grass. And that’s where I sit right now: all of our properties are covered with a thick blanket of residual grass, grass that is protecting the soil from the worst of the summer sun. I began rationing this grass out in small portions, even though it was only early June. I have explained to our landowners that the pastures are going to look a little rough this summer, and I am praying against fire. This is high fuel load with low moisture and limited nutrition, but it will provide adequate feed for the rest of the summer and fall, even if we don’t get any rain. Calf performance will be modest, but no one will starve.

Whew! Now that I’ve got the hard management work done, I can get back to doing the kind of things most ranchers really like to do for fun: fixing fence, patching on buildings and killing weeds. When it comes to killing weeds, my friend Kathy Voth will forgive me, I hope, but the main issues I deal with are Tansy Ragwort (a seriously poisonous plant) and Bull Thistle, a spiney-thorned brute that wants to grow up to be a Prickly Pear cactus. Truth be told, our total “weed problem” is very modest, as our strong cool-season perennial grasses seem to out-compete most broadleafs. We manage for grass, and for the most part the “weeds” take care of themselves.

Early in the spring, I like to wander around looking for rosettes: the immature, palm-sized adolescents that will bolt as soon as the soil begins to dry out. These young plants turn into tall, strong adult plants that stand out like green and yellow beacons, driving me to distraction. My father’s hatred of weeds was legendary. I try not to be as obsessed as he was, but the sight of a four-foot-tall blazing yellow Tansy certainly gets my attention.

(This is not John’s place. It’s just an example of how obvious tansy ragwort can become.)

This summer, about a month or so after de-stocking, I noticed a funny thing: there are hardly any Tansy or Bull thistle around. As the cattle finished modestly grazing their most recent paddock, I wandered around looking for truculent weeds, but found only a few. The ground is still covered with a pretty heavy mat of residual grass, and there are still some immature rosettes down there underneath, but for the most part, not many adult weeds. These rosettes may somehow find enough soil moisture to bolt later this summer, but I doubt it. I would estimate our weed population is only twenty percent of normal. And keep in mind, this is in my equivalent of a drought year.

Here’s a photo of a cow herd on droughty summer feed. They are set to move in an hour or so.

This is the paddock that herd is moving to. You will note that there appears to be quite a lot of dead/dry grass in this sward, but a second shot (pointing at the ground surface) shows that the feed is actually in very good shape.

 

So, de-stocking to satisfy my Drought Plan appears to result in adequate summer feed for the remaining cattle, but also in a radical reduction in weeds. Less weeds during drought seems counter-intuitive, but conditions on the ground are leading me to question some of my past grass management practices. Conclusions:

A heavy blanket of residual grass, especially with healthy regrowth included, reduces the ability of “weeds” to grow to maturity.

A lower stocking rate and carefully managed rotations may allow me to control weed populations with little chemical/physical effort. Maybe I should be doing this in normal years as well as drought years. This would require some serious tinkering with the grazing/stocking model.

The trade-off between achieving maximum stocking rate and affecting changes in plant populations is interesting and will require some continuing study.

Less time and effort spent on weed control is a very attractive life-style goal. I hate the smell of weed poison.

I’ll try to keep you advised as the season progresses.

Happy Grazing!

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About the author

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

2 Comments

  1. Ethan Walker says:

    Excellent article John. I printed it out for our office. We get a lot of producers this time of year asking what the best chemical is to get rid of their weed.

  2. Ben says:

    Nice article John. Good luck with your drought planning. We are in D4 drought designation right now here in SE CO.

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