Know Your Food-Know Your Farmer Series: E2 Water Management
Here in the beginning of 2019, talking about water may cause some of y'all to throw stones. Several areas of the country, including Southeastern PA, have had record rainfalls in 2018 and the beginning of 2019, honestly I'm sick of it raining. However, water management is foundational to building healthy soils and growing healthy animals. Whether we see a plant growing up through the asphalt, a tree growing on the side of sheer rock cliff, or a hydroponic system growing food with no soil at all, one nutrient is constant: water. I think we can agree that the side of a cliff or the asphalt in the parking lot of our grocery store doesn't provide the most nutritious soil.
I am not an expert in this area, but I'm still learning. What I'm going to share comes from several sources: The Stockman Grass Farmer, Restoration Agriculture, and Water For Every Farm (Keyline Water Management) to name a few. On our farm, we are fortunate that Wes has done a pretty good job of keeping erosion at a minimum. However, when it rains large amounts of water run off and through our rolling hills. If we were to keep more of that water retained (not saturated) in the ground, our fields would be healthier and more drought resistant. If you were to read Water For Every Farm by P.A. Yoemans, we are not implementing all of his ideas.
Our first step is to slow the water down. The steeper the ground is when it is raining the faster water will flow. If you were to place a series of small ditch that spreads the water out, then it gives the water a chance to soak into the ground. This small ditch is called a swale, and it follows the same elevation around hills, ridges, or valleys. For those of you familiar with contour farming, think of a much smaller version. These swales have less than 4% grade, so the water in them runs very slow. We've identified several areas where we are going to add swales and retaining ponds for heavy downpours.
Our second step is to subsoil. Wes has no-tilled the farm for 20+ years, and while this greatly reduces erosion, it tends to lead to compaction of the soil. The soil gets compressed from equipment driving over it which causes plant growth and microbe activity to be negatively affected. A subsoiler is a tool pulled by a tractor that will cut a several slits down into the soil cracking the compacted soil, but will not tear up or turn over the topsoil like a chisel or mold bore plow. It leaves a 1" trench for water and roots to work their way down into the lower levels of the soil. We do not plan on subsoiling the entire farm. Instead we will subsoil above the swales and other identified areas of the farm. These 2 steps will greatly increase the retention capacity of our soils in the pasture.
Our third step is to test the soil, possibly add lime, and then unroll hay bales. This is not common around here, but is more common in beef cattle country. Basically (Yes, I'm skipping over a lot), a roll of hay is nutrients, organic matter, and seed from another farm. If you want to improve your soil's health, one of the quickest way is to unroll a round bale and let livestock eat and trample it into the ground. This trampling action in addition to the animals urine and dung feed the soil microbes thereby increasing the fertility and organic matter of the soil. You unroll a round bale with a pull behind bale unroller like the one described in Greg Judy's book, No Risk Ranching. We plan on getting one in March.
Some of you may be saying, "why unroll hay? why not just spread manure and use chemical fertilizer like everyone else?" That's for another time, but short version is our current plan is to try and mimic nature. The grassy plains of the Midwest when the buffalo roamed or the Serengeti in Africa during the massive herd migrations following the yearly flooding is an example of what we're trying to do. Impact from multiple species (under management-intensive grazing) of animals followed by periods of rest result in a diverse poly-culture of plant, insect, and microbial life that is nutritious and resistant to disease.
In closing, this is just another step toward producing nutrient dense food that is pasture based. If any of this resonates with you, please sign up for our newsletter so you can be the first to hear about new products we roll out and updates about the farm, and go to our Facebook and Youtube sites and like and subscribe. Yes, right now there is not a lot of content there, but it is on the way.