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Archive | Ranching

Weathering Drought

Corn field in drought

For farmers, the decision to put in an irrigation system is often dictated by economics. One must consider the cost of the system versus the possible crop losses due to drought.

With the arrival of spring, farmers and gardeners look forward to the start of the growing season. As temperatures warm, spring planting can begin. Fruit trees will break winter dormancy. Pastures will start to green up. Livestock become more active. But as spring turns into summer, the weather can also provide challenges — the greatest of which are heat waves and droughts.

In the summer, temperatures may soar past levels where plants and animals begin to be affected and can reach a point where production is negatively impacted. At worst, damage or even death can occur. Drought is an even greater threat to crops. A lack of water causes even more immediate production losses and a total loss is certainly possible.

For many locations, heat and drought go hand in hand during the summer, and just about every year somewhere in the country heat waves and drought occur. Every farmer is bound to find themselves dealing with drought at some point. What constitutes hot temperatures depends on where you live. For Fairbanks, Alaska, 90°F is rare but has occurred.

In Columbia, South Carolina, where it can top 90°F many times in the course of a summer, even 100 degrees is not that unusual. This is important since to a large degree agricultural operations are geared for normal conditions; the type of temperatures normally experienced and expected. With the relatively cool waters of the Pacific just offshore, the West Coast has only brief hot spells when an offshore flow develops in summer. From the Rockies eastward, abnormally hot conditions become more of a periodic threat. Continue Reading →

Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →

Farm Smarter: Time Management Tips

Even if we don’t expect to get paid for all the hours we work on the farm, tracking how we spend our time, in order to employ smart time management strategies,  provides incredibly valuable information on the viability and efficiency of our production models and helps us and other sustainable farmers innovate the methods and infrastructure that will be needed to bring about a new and sustainable food system.

Sustainable farming is by definition a model that can continue for the long-term and that stewards finite resources that are often neglected or taken for granted.

There’s a myth that permeates the community of sustainable farmers, especially among those that are new, young and passionate. It started innocuously, but it has the potential to jeopardize the long-term viability of the new sustainable food system.

The myth is that sustainable farming is above all a way of life characterized by a devotion to the land, and that those who are focused on making money are missing the point and bound to be disappointed.

This sort of thinking is dangerous because the stories we tell ourselves matter. When we half-jokingly remark after having a tough year or working an 18-hour day that we “aren’t in it for the money” or when we let another season go by without seriously tracking the time we spend working on the farm because it would “be depressing” or because “everything is going to turn around anyway next year,” it undermines the future of sustainable farming by perpetuating the deleterious myth that as farmers, where we put our time doesn’t matter so long as we’re busy.

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Windbreak Benefits on the Farm

Windbreak benefits extend beyond reducing wind erosion. Research reveals windbreaks can also be customized to meet your farm management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

Windbreak benefits extend beyond controlling wind to include soil moisture retention and additional wildlife habitat options.

A “national menace” is what Congress called wind erosion during the Dust Bowl. This menace caused an estimated loss of 850,000,000 tons of topsoil and spurred President Roosevelt’s large-scale Shelterbelt Project of planting tree windbreaks across the Great Plains to reduce future wind erosion.

Research shows that reducing wind erosion isn’t the only benefit provided by these windbreaks, and they can be customized to meet your farm’s management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

In a field adjacent to a windbreak, there is an area where a crop yield of 110 percent isn’t uncommon; it’s the area which Charles Barden, professor of forestry with Kansas State University and principal investigator of the Great Plains Crop Yield Study, dubs the “sweet spot in the field.” In this sweet spot, usually found in an area about two times the height of the trees and extending out 12-15 times the height of the windbreak trees, research has found an increase in yield of 23 percent for winter wheat, 15 percent for soybeans and 12 percent for corn.

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Managing Parasites in Livestock

Internal parasites are part and parcel of the animal’s ecosystem, or its “body ecology.” Wild ungulates are continually moving, leaving their parasite loads behind where they desiccate in the sun or just plain run out of nourishment before the animals return to the pasture. However, animals that are subjected to pasture or loafing areas without adequate rest will build up parasite loads, especially on humid landscapes, where moisture and temperature are conducive to their growth and reproductive cycles.

Young animals and those with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable, and this includes pregnant and lactating animals. Never allow your stock with parasite challenges to become underweight.

Parasites: Landscape Management

The first and most important component in parasite management is landscape management by employing sound rotation practices. This includes not only the adequate amount of time for the rest period between rotational grazing, but also grazing height management.

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Be Counted: 2017 Census of Agriculture

The United States Department of Agriculture has started sending out the 2017 Census of Agriculture. Sadly, in a world filled with scams attempting to gain your personal information for nefarious reasons and a lack of confidence in the government, the agricultural census is often met with distrust.

Conducted once every five years, the census aims to get a complete and accurate picture of American agriculture. The resulting data are used by farmers, ranchers, trade associations, researchers, policymakers, and many others to help make decisions in community planning, farm assistance programs, technology development, farm advocacy, agribusiness setup, rural development, and more.

Naturally, most homesteaders, farmers and ranchers have an independent streak. We crave the independence that this lifestyle lends us, and we desire to hold onto it with all our might — especially since it seems to be under attack from numerous directions lately. Despite what may at first seem an invasion of privacy, the census is nothing new to producers and provides a means of opportunity for those involved with agriculture.

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