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Great Grazing Beats Most Droughts

Author: Alan Newport | Published: August 2, 2017 

I had the opportunity to visit with a man today about the benefits of managed grazing in a drought, and I think my list of advantages might be useful to others.

These are things I’ve observed and things I’ve gleaned from others as they have managed their way through droughts. In some cases there is science to bear witness to these truths, and in others they are anecdotal but widely accepted among top grazing managers.

The ugly

The bad news is that at some point, drought can get bad enough you may need to destock completely. The good news is, as part of your grazing plans, grazing records, and your records of rainfall and resulting forage production, you should have done so in a controlled method that garnered you the highest price for part of your stock because you sold earlier than everyone else. The other piece of good news is good grazing management will set you up for a faster recovery, and likely a much more successful recovery than continuous graziers.

Beef Producer columnist and long-time holistic grazier Walt Davis says many years ago he studied the rainfall records and stocking rate records from the research station at San Angelo, Texas, and found all the major declines in stocking rate occurred after droughts. These were new, lower plateaus of production from which the forage never recovered. Of course, the research station was continuously grazed.

The good

Just how much drought resistance you have depends foremost on how much progress you’ve made increasing soil organic matter through good grazing. The key is full recovery of plants and the deep roots that puts down. There are many ways to do this, as we’ve covered over the years. R.P. Cooke uses full recovery all the time, all year around, as do many others. Some graze part of the property on a schedule that uses two or three grazings during the growing season while recovering part of the ranch fully. Then they graze in the winter on the fully recovered and heavily stockpiled forage.

One thing I know is people who use faster rotations and less recovery time, concentrating on keeping forage vegetative and at the highest quality, have much less drought resistance. Their advantage is typically they know about how many days of forage they have left.

Better timing

Great graziers keep good records on rainfall and forage production (usually animal days per acre) or similar, so they understand when they are getting in trouble before others. Selling a portion of your animals early in a drought cycle when prices are good is an inconvenience, but not a disaster. Selling a large proportion of your animals, or all of them, well into a drought and after prices are down significantly is absolutely a disaster.

Great graziers also know how many days of forage they have ahead of their cattle and when they will run out. They also can monitor regrowth in grazed paddocks to see if that supply will expand.

Better soil

Those who practice complete recovery of forages as part of their grazing management will have soil that’s healthier and has higher organic matter and more life. The plant roots will be deeper, fuller and higher functioning. The arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi will be healthier and will provide more water and more nutrients to the plants so they can thrive. Higher organic matter and more shade on the soil surface can catch and hold much more water — each 1% soil organic matter can hold about 25,000 gallons of water per inch of soil. That alone can fight back a lot of drought.

More grass

The records kept by great graziers show they increase the animal days per acre and therefore increase their stocking rates over time. We have reported many, many times over the years that graziers who do a good job nearly always double their stocking rates, and that many triple or quadruple their stocking rates. This proves they are growing more grass.

Incidentally, animal days per acre or animal unit days are just measurements of how many grazing days you get per unit of livestock.

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Dust Bowl Would Devastate Today’s Crops, Study Finds

Author: Robert Mitchum | Published on: December 20, 2016

A drought on the scale of the legendary Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s would have similarly destructive effects on U.S. agriculture today, despite technological and agricultural advances, a new study finds. Additionally, warming temperatures could lead to crop losses at the scale of the Dust Bowl, even in normal precipitation years by the mid-21st century, UChicago scientists conclude.

The study, published Dec. 12 in Nature Plants, simulated the effect of from the Dust Bowl era on today’s maize, soy and wheat crops. Authors Michael Glotter and Joshua Elliott of the Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy at the Computation Institute, examined whether modern agricultural innovations would protect against history repeating itself under similar conditions.

“We expected to find the system much more resilient because 30 percent of production is now irrigated in the United States, and because we’ve abandoned corn production in more severely drought-stricken places such as Oklahoma and west Texas,” said Elliott, a fellow and research scientist at the center and the Computation Institute. “But we found the opposite: The system was just as sensitive to drought and heat as it was in the 1930s.”

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The New Water Alchemists

Author: Judith D. Schwartz | Published on: November 29, 2016

Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent, and a nation cursed by headline-grabbing weather extremes. In 2013, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology famously added dark purple to its weather maps to denote over-the-top heat waves, the no-longer-rare days when air temperatures breach 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). Australia’s history since European settlement has been riddled with droughts and floods so dire they’re etched in the books as significant natural disasters. The millennium drought, known colloquially as the “Big Dry,” persisted for 15 years until finally doused by epic rains and floods that lasted from late 2010 into early 2011.

As for wildfires, the most devastating since 1851 have names, including Black Christmas and Black Tuesday. Most recently and most deadly were the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 in the southeastern state of Victoria, which killed 173 people. The sheer extent of Australia that goes up in smoke is mind-boggling. An estimated 60,000 bushfires, many of them extensive, flame through Australia each year. (Between one-third and one-half of these are attributed to arson.) According to several tallies, between 130 and 220 million hectares (or 321 to 543 million acres) are burnt each year by either wildfires or intentional controlled burns. That’s a patch of earth somewhat bigger than the nation of Liberia. The carbon emitted from these conflagrations dwarfs the amount spewed by fossil fuels.

“I think of this as solar real estate. And I look at myself as a capitalist,” says Chris Henggeler, referring to his land in a hot, desolate corner of Australia. And his cattle? That’s “middle management,” he says. “They’re our plumbers and electricians.”

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Drought in Southern Africa Points to Urgent Need for Climate Change Plans

It is expected that temperatures in southern Africa will rise by between 1.5°C and 3°C due to climate change by the year 2050. This is likely to cause heavy fluctuations of weather patterns and more frequent severe weather events like droughts and floods. Agriculture will be severely affected.

In turn, many economies in southern Africa which are dependent on agriculture will feel the impact. The effects of climate change are already being felt. The 2015 agricultural season in southern African was considered the driest in 35 years.

Five countries in the region – Swaziland, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe – declared national drought disasters. Eight of South Africa’s nine provinces and the southern and central areas of Mozambique declared partial drought emergencies.

Massive crop failures were experienced across the region. This led to a deficit of 9.3-million tons in cereal crop harvests. On top of this 643 000 cattle were estimated to have died in the drought. Because of these agricultural failures, food insecure populations increased by 31%. This implied that more than 40 million people needed humanitarian assistance.

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Farmer Survey Reveals Concern, Shifting Attitudes on Climate Change

More than 1,300 primary producers, from a wide range of industries and states, responded to the survey which was organised by Farmers for Climate Action.

Of those who responded, 80 per cent wanted politicians to do more about climate change, including renewed and secure public investment in research, development and extension programs, to help farmers adapt to a more volatile climate.

The same number of farmers wanted their agriculture sector representatives to do more to advocate for stronger action.

Peter Holding, a mixed farmer from Harden on the NSW south-west slopes and long-time climate science advocate, said there was a clear message that farmers wanted strong political leadership on the issue.

“Economics you can work around, debts you can work around, finance and all the other issues that we’ve got [as farmers], but if we continue to ignore climate change and it continues to get worse, I think we’re in real big trouble,” he said.

Climate change concerns go beyond the label

Not all farmers are comfortable subscribing to the idea of climate change, the survey found.

According to the survey, about 60 per cent of farmers believed in climate change. But even more respondents said they were concerned about changing conditions they had observed on their properties, even though they were not prepared to call that “climate change”.

“Eighty per cent of farmers acknowledge that things are happening on their farm: whether or not they accept climate change, that doesn’t really worry them. Quite frankly it’s kind of irrelevant,” he said.

“They’re suffering more frequent droughts, less rainfall, more bushfires, increased weeds, and have made the statement that it’s been happening with more regularity.

“They don’t know why it’s happening, and they’re not prepared to accept climate change, but what we’re trying to point out to the politicians is that these things are happening.”

Mr Holding acknowledged there may have been an element of self-selection in farmers who chose to complete the survey, but noted that with 40 per cent of respondents saying they didn’t believe in climate change, the sample was far from unanimous.

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Agriculture and Food Security at Heart of Climate Change Action

The world must rapidly move to scale up actions and ambitions on climate change FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva told delegates at the United Nations Climate Change conference (COP22) in Morocco today.

Speaking at the high-level action day on agriculture and food security, Graziano da Silva noted that climate change impacts on agriculture – including crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries, land and water – are already undermining global efforts to assure food security and nutrition.

And the rural poor are the most affected.

With over 90 percent of countries referring to the important role of agriculture in their national plans to adapt to and mitigate climate change, Graziano da Silva stressed that

“it is time to invest in sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture as a fundamental part of the climate solution.”

Last year’s conference in Paris led to the world’s first legally binding global climate deal. The current summit in Marrakech, Morocco is geared to implementation of the pledges all signatory countries made. Echoing the prevalent spirit at the COP, the Paris Agreement is irreversible and inaction would be a disaster for the world.

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Climate Change Is Here: Inside the Summer of Hell and High Water

Author: Tom Dickinson | Published on: September 22, 2016

With a catastrophic season of wildfires, megafloods and major hurricanes, the climate-change siege is fully upon us.

Southern California was ready to burn. El Niño rains that topped off reservoirs in the north of the state barely drizzled down south, leaving the region in a worst-in-centuries drought. By June, tree die-off in state forests, accelerated by bark beetles feasting on dry pines, had more than doubled from 2015, topping 66 million. Record heat – 122 degrees in Palm Springs – pushed the extreme fire conditions typical of September and October into midsummer. So when sparks hit the ground in August, fires across the state literally exploded. “It’s almost like the mountains are just doused in gasoline,” said one fire captain.

In the mountains above San Bernardino, the Blue Cut Fire consumed 30,000 acres in a single day, jumping an eight-lane interstate, spawning fire tornadoes and erecting a wall of flame nearly 90 feet tall. “It moved with an intensity and a ferocity that veteran firefighters haven’t seen before,” said San Bernardino County fire chief Mark Hartwig. The inferno forced the evacuation of 82,000 residents in less than 12 hours, many riding out on fire engines. Before a merciful break in the winds allowed firefighters to gain the upper hand, the Blue Cut destroyed more than 300 homes and buildings. Up the coast, firefighters battled the 46,000-acre Chimney Fire, narrowly saving the Hearst Castle – the extravagant mansion that inspired Xanadu in Citizen Kane.

As California was gripped by fire, the hottest August in recorded history unleashed extreme weather events in every corner of the United States. Hawaii braced for an unprecedented “double hurricane,” back-to-back systems that barreled down on the Big Island before passing just offshore. Then Hermine, the first hurricane to hit the Florida capital of Tallahassee since 1985, sent tropical-storm warnings north into New England.

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How to Leave Industrial Agriculture Behind: Food Systems Experts Urge Global Shift Towards Agroecology

(Brussels / Trondheim: 2nd June) Input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots must be consigned to the past in order to put global food systems onto sustainable footing, according to the world’s foremost experts on food security, agro-ecosystems and nutrition.

The solution is to diversify agriculture and reorient it around ecological practices, whether the starting point is highly-industrialized agriculture or subsistence farming in the world’s poorest countries, the experts argued.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), led by Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, released its findings today in a report entitled ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’.

De Schutter said: “Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates.”

He added: “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. It is the mismatch between its huge potential to improve outcomes across food systems, and its much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms.”

The report was presented today at the 8th Trondheim Biodiversity Conference (Norway) by lead author Emile Frison, former Director General of Bioversity International.

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The King of Cover Cropping

Author: Brian DeVore

An Indiana initiative has made the state a national leader in getting continuous living cover established on crop acres. Can it change the way farmers view soil?

Michael Werling is, literally, a card-carrying connoisseur of soil health.

“I call it, ‘My ticket to a farm tour,’ ” says the northeastern Indiana crop producer, showing off his business card. The words on the “ticket” leave little doubt what is in store for the lucky holder who chooses to redeem it. Headings at the top say, “My soil is not dirt” and, “My residue is not trash.” A third bold line of script across the middle reads, “For Healthier Soil and Cleaner Water Cover Crop Your Assets and ‘NEVER TILL.’ ” Buried at the bottom as a bit of an afterthought is Werling’s contact information. Given his excitement over the world beneath his feet and how to protect and improve it, maybe it makes sense the farmer’s card relegates his address and phone number to footnote status—soil is his identity.

Spend enough time on a soil health tour in Indiana these days and one is likely to run into a lot of farmers like Werling. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given that events like this tend to attract true believers in the power of healthy humus to do everything from create more resilient fields to clean up water.

But what sets Indiana apart is that it’s home to an initiative that has found a way to take the passion of farmers like Werling and use it as an engine for driving change on a whole lot of farms whose owners may not be card-carrying soil sophisticates—they’re just looking for ways to cut fertilizer costs and keep regulators off their backs, all the while remaining financially viable.

Werling is one of a dozen “Hub Farmers” located across Indiana who are at the core of one of the most successful soil health initiatives in the country. In just a few short years, a public-private partnership called the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative (CCSI) has helped get around 8 percent of the Hoosier State’s crop fields blanketed in rye and other soil-friendly plants throughout the fall, winter and early spring—times when corn and soybean fields are normally bare. No other Corn Belt state is even close to having that high a percentage of its land protected with continuous living cover. Indiana’s success has farmers, soil scientists and environmentalists across the country excited about the potential CCSI holds as a national model. But first, one key questions needs to be addressed: can a state parlay all of this interest in one conservation farming technique—in this case cover cropping—into a holistic embrace of a larger soil health system?

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Food Tank: Polyfaces

Author: Lani Furbank

The Australian-based nonprofit Regrarians recently released a documentary about Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, titled “Polyfaces.” The film showcases the unique and sustainable farming style pioneered by the Salatin family in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It examines how these holistic practices regenerate landscapes, communities, local economies, human health, and soil.

Regrarians works with farmers, communities, and government organizations internationally to teach and implement regenerative agriculture.

The film was produced over four years by Lisa Heenan, Isabella Doherty, and Darren Doherty, a family from Australia who was inspired by Polyface Farm and wanted to share the farm’s work with the world.

Polyfaces premiered in New York and Los Angeles earlier this year and qualified for the Academy Awards. It also won several awards, including Best Documentary at the Silver Springs International Film Festival in Florida, the Minister of Agriculture Award at the Life Sciences Film Festival in Prague, a Gold Remi at the WorldFest Film Festival in Houston, and the Festival Spirit Award at Weyauwega International Film Festival in Wisconsin.

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