August on the Farm

August, Waiting for Rain

The water table slips lower and lower as the plants roots pull up vast amounts of water to feed and cool themselves, while the rain showers sneak by, either to far north or to far south. The jet stream spends much of its time ridging north across Canada, and our best chance for rain is a small renegade storm system. Typically in the lower wetland type areas there is about a 3 foot ground water table drop over the summer. This lets the borders around the numerous wetlands firm up and neighboring farmers get the hay rigs out in August and take a couple laps around these pot hole wet spots to get more hay. They mow the allowed 1/3 of their CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) acres for hay, hay the road ditches and bale up every scrap of grass that they can. Mainstream extractive agriculture generally rewards those that take every opportunity. I don’t want to come up short on hay, but I also value wildlife and try to leave as much tall winter wildlife cover as I can. Another thing nice about allowing significant acres to go into winter with taller grass is that it catches snow, so there is both grass and snow insulating the ground. The better the insulation, and more mature the plant was at fall dormancy, the quicker new growth jumps up the following spring. I can always start getting some significant grazing weeks earlier in the spring than my neighbors.

But in August, it is hot, the booming growth of early summer has the potential for leaving my pastures with a lot of tall and rank (steamy) grasses. The cattle don’t gain as much weight due to both the heat which limits appetite, and the rank grass that is less nutritious. It will take forethought and logistics to keep the cattle comfortable and gaining well. If we are in a droughty stretch they will just have to work the biology in their ruman harder, breaking down the extra cellulose in the rank grass. They have the equipment, so no harm in cranking it up a bit. But if we are lucky enough to have gotten a few decent mid summer rains, I will try to time regrazing of pastures so that they end up in prime condition with more energy and protein to go with the cellulose. One way I kept the forage lush and vegetative in moist summers was to hay some pastures in a step-wise manner that would regrow and be mid height lush regrowth by late summer. There is art and luck involved, and a lot can change in the 45 or so days between cutting hay after a good rain, and regrazing.

Here on the northern prairie, trapped between the Rockies and Appalachians, we are closed off from the moderating temperature effect from oceans and also have the potential to get stuck in weather patterns that in summer funnel dry hot air from the desert SW, or humid air off the Gulf of Mexico. This tends to vary from year to year and too often we have either hot and dry or hot and humid summers. Long-term we also see periods like the unusually wet 1986-1993 stretch, or the terribly dry 1930’s.

I’ve taken an interest in climatology, especially tree ring studies. The tree ring studies for the northern plains primarily used ancient cottonwood, burr oak, and cedar timbers from along the Missouri River Mandan villages, red cedar and petrified and yellow pine in western Nebraska, and ancient burr oak in eastern Nebraska. From these they have been able to piece together an estimate on the wet and dry spells back several hundred years. It is a little disconcerting that it looks like the 30’s drought isn’t an anomaly, in fact there appears that some droughts have been longer, and some more intense.

An interesting dry/ wet story is of when they were surveying for the railroad in eastern South Dakota in 1879-1880, and they were tempted to propose the tracks across a large flat stretch of what today is sizable Lake Preston. There were many other spots that looked like ancient lake beds and the pioneer farmers in the area told the surveyor that for the 25 years they had lived there that none of these flats had ever held water. But on much earlier crude maps made in the 1830’s by Fremont, there were names on places that looked to match up with the dry for decades lake beds. They finally searched out an old fur trapper that had been in the area much longer and were told that those and thousands of other dry lake beds held water when he had come into the country. The next very snowy winter of 1880-81, spoke of by Laura Ingalls Wilder in The Long Winter, and by other authors, which when melted the following spring, filled all those dry lake beds again.

But for what we have good written records on, the 1930’s drought was the toughest. The most notable year for heat was 1936. The records for Aberdeen showed high temperatures above 100 degrees lasting from July 4th through July 26th, excepting for one day. One night the low only fell to 83 degrees, with most nights in the 70s.

The 30’s suffering was exacerbated by the plowing of the prairie. In my area I have several old fence lines that stand on a hump of higher ground. Some are on four or five foot mounds where in the ‘Dirty ’30s’ the surrounding sandy ground took to the wind, only to be stopped mostly by the tumble weeds that caught in the wire of the old original fence line that ended up mostly covered. Afterward, they just built the new fence on top of the mounded over old fence.

I’m always captivated by these stories. Stories of needing lanterns to start milking at 5 PM in the summer, and then when they were done, dusting off my 70 year old story teller who was then but a little boy sitting by the window. Stories of farming the dry lake bottoms, and of the government buying up the starving cattle and shooting them. People moving in from further west where it was drier yet, and people moving on from here.

It’s probably beyond my ability to imagine how tough farming through the 30’s had to have been, but I get an idea when in a contemplative mood I drove the back roads. I’d go by old abandoned farms where someone tried to eke out a living. They are tough looking places due to weather and decay, but it is obvious that they were never much. Just a drafty 700 sq. ft. house and small barn staring across an endless, lonely dusty windswept landscape. Today, windows shattered, leaning, gaping, and with a few dead or dying snags for trees, a snarl of fence, rusty iron, and collapsed jumble of old wagons, sheds, and whatever. And I wonder what will become of all my efforts down the road.

The 2012 drought was cushy compared to the 30’s but it was the toughest I’ve had to deal with. Luckily, we went into spring with a little moisture, which kept my deep rooted, well established grass and forbs growing well into July strictly on carry over ground moisture. The well established grass and forbs growth gradually slowed way down, but were still a deep green, and my place in August looked like an oasis compared to the brown pastures around me.

I had tried in 2012 to revitalize a couple old hay fields by replanting, but by mid summer all the new plants that had come up were struggling for any tiny amount of moisture that the hot sun and wind hadn’t wicked from the soil surface. Unlike the grass shaded and cooled pasture soil, the hay field that had been tilled that spring was honeycombed with cracks, big enough for the snakes and frogs to crawl down into seeking a cooler, if not moister, spot. Despite the dry, weeds did grow and after the heat of the summer was past, I took a fantastic crop of primarily lambsquarters hay, which counter intuitive to their roots robbing all the moisture from the new crop, helped them survive by eventually shading and cooling the soil and those young plants.