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Making Hay While the Sun Shines, Even If You Don’t Want To

By   /  June 10, 2019  /  2 Comments

All the drought indicators were met, so John’s drought management plan kicked in. And then it rained.

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John is in there somewhere saying “Hi” from his tall grass.

What in the world is going on here?!

If you have read any of my previous articles, you might think that I am a bit obsessed with all things “grazing”. The focus of my ranching world is always on grass and forbs, soils, photosynthesis, grazing strategy, and occasionally, a bit about bovines. But one thing I almost never talk about is hay. In fact, some folks might conclude that I hate hay. This might be because I have been heard to make statements like the following:

“If you see hay equipment driving around in circles on this ranch it will be an indication that I have lost my mind or had some sort of severe management failure.”

At this point, I feel like the new guy who shows up late for the meeting, takes a seat in the rear of the room, then stands up and proclaims: “My name is John Marble and for reasons I cannot quite explain, we will be making some hay this year. In fact, quite a little bit. This is hard for me to say, but even more difficult for me to explain. Part of that is because I cannot really say that I understand it at all.”

Maybe I should try.

Click to read more about John’s thoughts on the importance of folks having a plan in place for managing in drought conditions.

Our spring growing season began about as usual, with me complaining about cold and wet conditions. That was immediately followed by a return to the droughty trends we have battled for the past several years. For much of April (our prime grass growing month) there was simply not enough soil moisture to really support grass growth. This didn’t bother me quite as much as it would have in past years, as I have been tinkering with my enterprise mix, including more animals that are easier to liquidate if weather conditions dictate. I began my de-stocking early; everything was going according to plan (the drought plan, that is). Then a funny thing happened: the rains came, and they were long and hard. I stopped selling animals and went back to normal stocking and grazing. Everything good, right? Not exactly.

Selling off some of my more liquid stock early had allowed me to leave slightly more residual grass than usual on most of our pastures, which is a good thing if you are preparing for a drought. Apparently, this excessive residual grass was overwhelmingly stimulated by the late rains, and suddenly (well, 30 days later) I find myself swimming in grass, Phase 3 grass, grass that looks a lot like hay. This, even though our grazing cells are stocked only slightly less than normal and we suffered through a very difficult spring. In addition, I have some low, heavy clay paddocks that have not been grazed at all, but appear to be stuck in Phase 2. I’m very happy about this, as it looks like I won’t have to worry about managing them for a while. Also, all of this high-residual and ungrazed land appears to be having a very positive effect on our noxious weed population. We’ll see. (Want to know more about what Phase 2 and Phase 3 grasses look like? Check out this week’s Classic by NatGLC!)

In the meantime, our custom-grazing yearlings are preparing to ship out in a few weeks (two weeks later than last year) and virtually every other bovine we have is preparing to go to a summer grazing lease where they will spend the next six weeks. And I am left, suddenly, with the prospect of making hay. Lots of it. And eating some crow too, it seems.

I guess this is not a tragedy. I do, in fact, feed some hay early in the year when I’m accumulating cattle. I have barns to store this excess grass in. I have relationships with young, energetic folks that own train-loads of scrap iron known as hay equipment. Still, I woke up this morning grinding my teeth, checking the weather channel, looking at the sky and thinking about hay season.

Somehow, I thought I was past all of this. Wish me luck.

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. Tom Nichols says:

    John, we could have saved you the grief by sending you lots of sheep!

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