The early part of spring here in the glorious grass country of western Oregon began about as usual. We were able to turn out our custom-grazing yearlings during the last week of March, just a touch earlier than usual. The cow herd went out a few days later.
Turning cattle out on grass always comes with a combination of emotions. I’m excited at the prospect of beginning to produce positive cash flow. I’m focused (maybe stressed just a bit) on trying to manipulate cattle numbers, grass growth, paddock size, grazing periods and a bunch of other variables, all to achieve the twin goals of strong production and ecological progress. I enjoy my drives from ranch to ranch and cataloging what’s happening everywhere, as well as starting my social relationships with new groups of cattle. Finally, there’s the challenge of a few technical problems to solve like electric fence systems that get cranky, or water systems that find creative new ways to fail.
This year, the first tiny red flags of drought started waving early in the grazing season. Things still looked great in our neighborhood, but a few hundred miles south of us, the National Weather Service began sending out warnings of possible drought conditions brewing. As the weeks went by, those warnings became much more dramatic, and eventually D1 and then D2 conditions were declared. The counties just south of us gradually turned from yellow to orange to dark red, and our own valley was threatened with D3 conditions.
I’ve Got a Plan For That
Some readers may recall that I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about drought. I have a written Drought Plan for responding to drought, and that plan commands that I undertake some basic simple actions when it appears we are headed into a drought:
Reduce the number of livestock to the point where my animal demand for forage matches the productive capacity of the land. This is a fairly linear relationship: if our moisture is expected to be reduced by 30%, I’d better reduce mouths-on the-ground by a similar amount.
Find additional grass resources.
I’ve found that the ability to find new pastures to rent is often highly influenced by the critical need for more forage.
This year, when the drought predictions were becoming really worrisome, I took action, activating my Drought Plan. First, I made a series of phone calls. Those conversations went like this:
“I need your help. Do you know anyone who might be looking for some good cows?
Within a few days I was sorting out the heart of my cow herd: young, straight cows with already-processed calves at side. These were pairs that I had planned to run through the summer and market in late fall. By selling them now, I was probably forgoing the potential of good profit later on, but the threat of drought made me grit my teeth and pull the trigger on the deal.
Next, I called the owner of our yearling cattle and explained that it was possible that the calves might not get to stay for the full season. Due to drought, they might have to leave early. I told him I would do my best, but the drought was becoming fairly scary at this point.
Finally, I pulled into the driveway of a small place that had recently changed hands. Within 15 minutes, I had rented the pasture, increasing my land base by five or ten percent. It took a day to string up enough poly fence and plastic water line to set up eight paddocks. We had already missed the first rotation, but I felt pretty happy just finding some more pasture, even if it was already past its prime.
At this point, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I had followed the drought plan and I was ready for a difficult summer. Whew!
And then the rains came. Thirty days of rain. Rain that stretched well into the typically dry first month of summer. Rain that brought tremendous growth and a growing stockpile of grass that was gradually becoming more and more mature. In no time, I was drowning in a sea of grass with only 60% of my typical animal base.
What to do? Take action!
Get on the phone and find some cattle!
I called a number of allies, eventually finding some cattle that precisely fit the nature of the grass I had. Many of our pastures were now headed toward maturity, covered in what I would call “cow grass”: not quite good enough for cow-calf pairs and definitely not good enough for yearlings. All of these paddocks had been grazed once, but the re-growth was overwhelming and aging by the day.
The answer was dry cows, and they began arriving just a week later. These were big, slick, full-mouth pregnant cows without calves. They were just the thing for processing our rough feed and turning it into cash flow dollars.
I also called the yearling owner and offered to extend the contract for as long as possible.
Call the Custom Hay crew!
I was able to beg my local hay operator into turning some of our excess grass into hay. I’m not a big fan of having lots of empty buildings scattered around the ranch, but it’s nice to have a place to stick some extra hay. Maybe I’ll sell some this winter.
Lessons Learned and Re-learned
Drought planning is valuable and righteous thing to do, even when it doesn’t work out the way you thought it would.
Having a mix of enterprises with some animals that are easily marketable is really important when dealing with volatile systems like weather.
Having allies to help with complicated systems like buying, selling, moving livestock is terribly important.
Being able to shift our focus from one solution to another as conditions change is hugely important. I think this is a skill that we can train ourselves to be better at.
Winding Down for the Year
Recently, I’ve spent quite a lot of time wandering around making calculations of grass inventory and cow days, thinking about who is going to go where, trying to keep the right animals on the right pieces of grass. Right now, I see about forty-five more days of grazing for those custom cows. Our own cattle will stay pretty busy on grass until Thanksgiving.
Unless Things Change.
If the market were to change dramatically, I could be marketing cattle much sooner than I think.
If the weather pattern changes and we suddenly get a tremendous amount of moisture and nice warm temps, well, we’ll have some high quality grass to deal with.
If we have a fire or some other unpredictable disaster, well, we’ll probably have to do something different.
Here’s What You Can Do With This
The point of this entire article is not really about dealing with drought or following your Drought Plan. The point is that as managers of complicated businesses that involve all kinds of complex biological, physical, meterological, and economic systems, we must accept the high probability of change ahead, and be ready to take action when those challenges occur. With all of these complicating factors, the ability to deal with change rapidly and effectively is critical to your success.
As Charles Darwin said in his “Origin of Species:”
Don’t get mad. Learn to accept and anticipate change. Solve today’s problem and get ready to work on the next one that is surely coming up. Grow up. Get on with it.
Update: On September 8, John called to say he was moving cattle and preparing to evacuate as they were surrounded by fire on three sides. His ranch was right in the path of the Holiday Farm Fire in Oregon. John is a volunteer for the Sweet Home Fire District, and after evacuating, he and the rest of the Crawfordsville Station returned to fight the fire. They were allowed home on Sunday, September 13, though they are still at level 2 alert, meaning they should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.
John’s herd won’t be returning home until it’s clear all danger has passed, but it’s safe to say he’ll be adjusting his grazing plan again. He’ll be sharing how he adjusts, along with ideas for how we can all be prepared to get through the worst events with grace and no drama. Stay tuned!
There are many references to using cattle to help reduce the extent of wildfires. Here’s one from B.C. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/b-c-enlists-cattle-to-help-fight-wildfires-in-targeted-grazing-program-1.5150257
We experienced horrendous fires in 2017 and 2018 and understand the situation in the NW USA this year.
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