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Curious observations about the drought

To keep from becoming too depressed over the drought, I try to find lessons to learn from it, like trying not to be envious when rain falls on nearby farms but not ours. Two occurrences in my pastures suggest a teeny bit of optimism, but they run contrary to the way I usually think about pasture farming. That is to say, both occurrences involve plants whose names up to now have been hard for me to say out loud without prefixing them with cuss words.

I do not much like tall fescue and I don’t think my sheep do either. The day I took the advice of experts and planted the stuff is the day I quit taking advice of experts. Because of a combination of very wet weather in April and other complications, I could not mow the fescue as I usually do until it was so tall and rank that my old rotary mower couldn’t handle it. It went to seed, the worst possible scenario in my estimation. But when there was nothing else to graze but old fescue stems in July, the sheep seemed to do okay. It appeared that they were eating the ripe fescue seed heads. Not quite believing my eyes, I called a friend in West Virginia who knows lots of weird things and who grazes livestock too. He responded with alacrity. “Oh yes, sheep will eat fescue seed like it was grain.” The upshot was that I could put off feeding expensive supplemental hay a little longer.

The books say that mowing fescue is not necessary to encourage a lush second growth for winter grazing (when fescue is more palatable). It will grow back from the roots just fine without mowing.The reason we mow, say some experts, is to make the pastures look nicer. Nor is my fear that fescue will take over a pasture and crowd out better forage necessarily true either, at least not here in northern Ohio where fescue is not native. My front pasture and a brother-in-law’s pasture, both once heavy with fescue, have now gone mostly to bluegrass and white clover with grazing and occasional mowing. It appears that when the fescue (or any other grass) saps the available nitrogen from the soil, clover will gain ascendency to put nitrogen back into the soil.

I can’t completely account for another happy occurrence directly related to the drought. I disked the strips where I grew open-pollinated corn last year and planted red clover in May. Then the dry weather set in and not one of the clover seeds sprouted. But on these bare strips there suddenly appeared in July, in the driest of the dry time, a lush green growth that looked like new wheat in spring. Unfortunately, I couldn’t graze it because it was right next to this year’s corn strips. There were two grasses involved. Quack grass and what we have always called barnyard millet. But the latter may be meadow foxtail. When I get out the books and try to identify plants, I am almost always confused because the descriptions and the pictures never look quite like the actual plants I am examining. These two grasses always come up in our pastures in late summer, but never such a nice stand as this. I just don’t get it.

If the corn doesn’t make ears this year, as seems likely in my case, I can turn the sheep in to eat the corn foliage and the grasses and still not have to feed expensive hay. The drought has ruined lots of corn this year. But the stalks and leaves still make good feed if the nitrogen content is not too high. More traditional livestock-grain farmers can take advantage of this emergency situation. They can chop and feed their crippled corn as silage. Or if they have fences around their fields, they can turn livestock in to do the harvesting themselves and maybe save as much money as the corn would have made in a good year, by not having to harvest, haul, dry, and store the stuff. At least the livestock would survive until the rains return. Rain will come again, won’t it?

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