November on the Farm

November, Nothing’s Easy

One of my fall jobs is trapping pocket gophers. If we had a lot more predators like the small Least Weasels, nature would do better at taking care of the pocket gophers, but since mankind has screwed up the large scale natural habitat, we have to help fix the machinery he has thrown a wrench into. I don’t do poison, so that leaves trapping, and they are hard to trap. I joke with the neighbor, that shrewd troublesome farmers get reincarnated as pocket gophers, so they know all the tricks. As a side note, it is interesting that on the Mount St Helen’s volcanic eruption where there seemed to be total devastation of animal life, they found where pocket gophers had survived.
Also, November always required extra effort to keep my cattle gaining weight and thriving. The perennial pasture plants have lost their high nutrition now sending most of their energy to their roots so as to have energy to over-winter and leap forth in the spring. To try and keep the beef on high quality nutritious forage I had to work a little harder. Early on I would spring plant annuals and or biennials (complete their life cycle in one or two years) like mixes of cereal rye, italian rye grass, oats, wheat, hairy vetch, millet, radishes, kale, swedes, field peas, turnips, hybrid brassica, and rape. These very hearty crops stay nutritious clear into December most years, and most will take frosts and mild freezing weather. (They excel in reseeding themselves so don’t reserve plant energy to over winter). Besides supplying green tops, there are exposed portions of the tubers from the turnips and such that get eaten to ground level. Then with the freezing and thawing many of the tubers eventually get heaved up, allowing the cattle to grab and enjoy the rest of the bulbs natural sugars and carbohydrates. Since all of these type crops need frequent replanting, and since it doesn’t pay for me to spend big money on good quality tillage and planting equipment for my limited number of acres, I moved back to fall grazing perennials and supplementing with good hay. The good hay makes up some for the lower energy in the perennials, so I end up missing a little potential weight gains, but the soil remains protected from oxidizing of organic matter and compaction from tillage, and of course erosion, trade offs.

Also, as we go into winter it will be critical for muskrats to have a sufficient water level in the sloughs and lakes to survive the winter. These water levels vary year to year depending on the rain and snow amounts from the previous year, but usually more important, from long term moisture trends. Moisture in 2009-2011 led to high water levels in the sloughs and lakes, which led to a return of muskrats. “Muskrat Love” quickly spread muskrats into about all of our cattail habitats. Why the muskrats stayed absent during equally high water periods of the ‘80s and ‘90s is a mystery and subject to speculation… disease? chemicals? But whatever the reason, over the 2009-2011 period the number of muskrat mounds expanded throughout wetlands big and small. They especially moved into the semi-permanent wetlands (wetlands that stay flooded most years but dry up occasionally). In this higher Choteau area we have the greatest amount of semi-permanent wetlands in South Dakota. These wetlands are usually too big and boggy to farm through, tile, drain, or ditch. More people than me see muskrats as a positive. Since, as they harvest cattails to build their mounds, the muskrats open up the cattail-choked marshes, which in turn helps ducks and other wetland populations to prosper.

The dry second half of 2011 and drought of 2012 forced a muskrat retreat from many of the semi-permanent, and seasonal water bodies, exposing some muskrats to predators (muskrat meals), but some I’m sure found their way to more permanent bodies of water and will hopefully return when water levels return.

I had at one time envisioned farming with draft horses, but with limited equity and having had to get serious about economics and look closer at viability, I had to give the idea up. Sure a draft team could be put to work and pay for their feed, they could save me if we had fuel shortages, and a bred draft mare could give me replacements, where a tractor suffered rust, repairs, depreciation, belched fumes…. But even with my smaller operation, by far my most limited resource was time, and with tractors I could do everything 10 times faster. I could produce much more with the mechanical monster, and if I wanted to run a farm with some economy of scale to compete, produce food at a price acceptable in my lower income area, in the day and age I lived in, I had to play by some of the unfortunate current rules.