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Tips for managing pasture in extreme weather

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairy Published on 20 August 2019
storm clouds

When dairy farming is based on grazing, a necessary focus on managing pastures to optimize forage nutrients for cow health and productivity emerges.

Managing pastures encompasses not only the forage selection, but the impact grazing cows themselves have on the forages as well as on soil health. Pasture management, which includes timing and duration of each grazing session, as well as the stocking density, requires a large dose of foresight and adaptability. 

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As the climate throws some curve balls that can undermine even the best grazing plans, graziers will be faced with less than ideal conditions to manage. The good news is that grass-based farmers are already well-positioned to weather any storms – or lack thereof. 

“Pasture-based farmers are already in a pretty good place when we talk about coping with extreme weather. If pastures and hayfields are well-managed, the amount of runoff and erosion during extreme storms should be minimized compared to cropland,” said Joshua Faulkner, research assistant professor of Univeristy of Vermont Extension – Center for Sustainable Agriculture, who presented a workshop at the Northeast Pasture Consortium 2019. 

What practical information do graziers need to know to ensure smooth sailing no matter the weather extremes? Is there some way to prepare for the worst as the anticipated extreme rainfall events, or periods of drought, become the norm? 

Farmer challenges

Matt Bomgardner has gradually implemented increased grazing over the past 15 years – with good results – on his family’s Annville, Pennsylvania, Blue Mountain View Farm. He is now meeting certified organic grazing requirements for his 100 head of milking cows. Bomgardner has learned to cope with variations in pasture soil moisture, from excessively wet to extremely dry conditions.

“Proper cutting and grazing management help the stand regrow as quickly as possible,” and play a significant role in reducing soil damage and increasing forage yield even under adverse conditions, Bomgardner said. “Maintaining dense stands of a diverse mix of grasses, legumes and forbs helps me manage drought by covering the soil to reduce soil temperatures and runoff.”

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Planting perennial pastures, and not relying on annuals, offers him security as the perennials grow any time conditions are favorable. Even following adverse growing conditions, perennials typically do not need to be reseeded. And when compared to corn or other cash crops, there is no critical time period where perennials must have a given quantity of rainfall in order to produce a good yield, he explained.

For wet winter conditions, he has found that keeping residue on the soil is the key to avoiding runoff concerns.

Perennial forages do just that.

“Last winter, we had 5 inches of rain on frozen soil, and there was major runoff and washouts. It didn't even matter if fields were no till. What seemed to matter was whether there was enough cover on the field,” Bomgardner stated. 

Neil Hertzler milks approximately 240 crossbred cows on the family’s Loysville, Pennsylvania, farmland. Two hundred acres of pasture are dedicated to the Hertzlers’ milking herd. Their pastures are a mix of orchard and ryegrass, fescue and clovers. 

Hertzler farms with his family, including father Duane Hertzler, who is Bomgardner’s grazing adviser and has been operating a grazing-based dairy since 1994, when he began the transition from a full confinement 60 head milking herd. Both Bomgardner and Hertzler now serve as mentors for the Pennsylvania Grazing Lands Coalition. 

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The Hertzlers’ goal is to “push as much pasture as possible,” Neil said. They are now feeding about 9 pounds of grain along with a grass and clover mix baleage, and triticale or soft-dough barley silage. 

Like Bomgardner, the Hertzlers see the benefit of perennial forages in wet or dry weather extremes.

“I believe pasture forages are more resilient to wetter weather, but maybe less so when there is drier weather,” Neil said. “The grasses dry up pretty quickly with lack of moisture, but they come back quickly when it does start raining again.”

Keeping all ground covered year-round is a key to soil health, Neil said. Perennial pastures are interseeded as needed to keep a dense stand and minimize soil runoff, compaction or erosion when extremes of weather do occur. 

“Some of our biggest challenges with weather extremes have been trying to keep the energy up in the grasses without as much sunshine in the wet seasons,” Neil said. “We have moved to make our own baleage as opposed to having the custom operator do it. This allows us to make better forage and take advantage of the limited sun when it does shine.  We need to make high-energy forage in our stored forages if our pasture grasses are lacking energy.”

When it is wet, the Hertzlers focus on rotating the cows to allow the pastures time to recover from a lot of hoof pressure. If the soil is too wet, however, the cows are kept off the pastures and in the barn. 

Soil health and weather extremes

Compacted soils reduce pasture yield and also slow down the infiltration of rainfall. In portions of the Midwest, one-day heavy precipitation events have increased by 46%. Along with the Northeastern states, where such events have increased even more dramatically, soil compaction is going to be a primary concern for farmers, Faulkner explained.

“We have been testing various interseeded species to help alleviate compaction and have had the best success with mixes containing sorghum-sudangrass. This forage also thrives during hot, dry weather,” Faulkner said.

Planting perennial forages is another way to minimize soil health issues in grazing systems.

“The key advantages in using perennials over annuals for improving resilience to extreme events is related to improved soil health. Perennial systems tend to be higher in organic matter, are not tilled and have improved structure, and maintain constant soil cover,” Faulkner said. “All of these factors lead to better infiltration of rain during heavy storms, meaning there is likely less runoff and less erosion and loss of valuable nutrients. The perennials also develop deeper roots, so that they can access deeper soil moisture during times of drought.” 

Another concern for pasture-based farmers is winter feeding. The number of frost-free days during winter in the Midwest and Northeast regions have increased by about 10 over the past 20 years, increasing compaction risk particularly in clay soils. Winter pastures become muddy with precipitation or during freeze and thaw cycles, increasing runoff and pugging. Using wood chip heavy-use areas, rather than concrete barnyards, can reduce these issues, Faulkner said.

Balancing year-round animal requirements while improving pasture stands and keeping soil health a priority becomes even more important when climate extremes are factored into the equation. Grazing-based dairy farmers are finding that focusing on the soil brings resiliency to their operations, no matter the weather.  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

PHOTO: Getty Images.

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