A wet September makes pasture management challenging

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drainage and waterway, WOTUS
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

Here in Ohio, it is a wet September Monday, the 17th. It rained all weekend, but I finally tossed on a raincoat and went outside to take care of what projects I thought I could do. All things considered, it was a pleasant experience.

I’ll take these slow steady rains any day, as long as I am warm and fed. I suppose in that regard I may not be that far removed from livestock in the field.

For the record, I checked rainfall data for our local weather station and over the weekend we tipped over the threshold of a year’s worth of annual rainfall.

We have already surpassed 34 of the past 72 years of records dating back to 1972, and we have most of four months still to go. The remnants of one tropical storm are now behind us, but the next storm is in the news and may be through by the time this is published.

Facing challenges

This has all put me in the mind of soil, water, and livestock, and the great management challenge it often presents. As I go out on field tours, I often see the “sacrificial” areas or the heavy use pads or whatever it is that contains animals when the weather is harsh and mud drives the livestock producer off the pasture.

Typically this is a winter or early spring issue, but the Ohio State Buckeyes are three games into the season, kids are back in school, and I can already see color in the leaves so it’s not too early to be thinking about this.

So, mud: it affects animal performance, comfort and health. An animal in the mud may not move as much as it should to reach food and water. In warm weather, we might worry about pathogens in standing water that can make animals sick.

In cool weather, wet or muddy skin provides less insulation value, which is more important for younger animals than older animals. Soil erosion and runoff are more likely in muddy areas.

This just may be the year where you have plenty of opportunities to observe and make improvements to water and soil management practices.

Comparing the challenges

It’s always interesting to take a pasture walk on a cow-calf operation. Even the most scenic and well-managed property has a challenge on it somewhere and we have these tours so we can compare notes and discuss what is going well and what will aid us going forward in the places that need it.

Managing mud and managing erosion is always part of that. Soil erosion is most likely to occur on slopes greater than 5 percent. Walking paths formed by livestock create space with no soil structure that is highly susceptible to erosion.

Rotational grazing systems keep soil on the farm where it needs to be by avoiding overuse of one area and taking advantage of natural animal behavior to manage the fields. A lot is written and said about soil erosion and rightly so: we depend on it for crop productivity.

The window for planting grasses will close soon so if you are unable to take action today, pay attention and watch for what you can improve in the next cycle.

The good news is that the perennial grasses in our pastures are about the best thing that can be there, but these heavy use areas are the places we need to keep an eye on and think strategically about. I was reminded of this again recently: set up systems that make the animals work for you, rather than you working for the animals.

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