We are in the middle of a drought at the end of October here in East Tennessee. It is classified as moderate to severe, depending on the source. Those in the drylands of the world would laugh at our complaints, but we are truly in a drought for our area. We are not in the desert. We are not in the drylands. We are in a continental temperate climate, and our average rainfall is between 36-44 inches (91-111 cm) per year, and this is one of the reasons we chose this area to live. Unfortunately, our rainfall is significantly below average. In fact, we are currently in the fourth driest month on record here in East Tennessee.
What does that mean to us and to our neighbors? Well, it means things are really dry. The soil. The pastures. Our ponds. And our neighbors are concerned about having enough hay for the Winter.
While it is not a cure-all by any means, but our application of Holistic Management is keeping our animals, and our land, in pretty good condition despite the drought. For those unfamiliar with the term, Holistic Management is a system of land and pasture management geared at improving the soil and the environment while still making a living using livestock. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s a brief explanation.
Above and below are a couple photos of our land when we first moved to the farm. It was a bit dry then as well in the first photo, although nothing like right now. You can see a few issues relatively quickly if you know what to look for. First, there are a lot of young Eastern Red Cedar trees/saplings (Juniperus virginiana) across the pastures. These pioneering plants will try to turn a pasture/field back into forest. Second, there is a lot of Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus). This is a native clumping grass that often indicates, and rightly so in our case, that the land has been overgrazed. I love native plants, no kidding, but some are better than others. Herbivores will eat Broomsedge Bluestem in the Spring and early Summer, but the nutritional quality of this plant greatly drops as the plants mature. Animals generally avoid it at this point. Then, to make matters worse, this clumping plant stays standing and blocks sunlight to other more desirable plants.
We were extremely blessed to have a youth group volunteer almost a week to clear the Eastern Red Cedar saplings from our fields. This saved untold hours of work on our part. And it was the first step in pasture regeneration.
At this time, we are using sheep as our primary tools to repair our land. We rotate them frequently… as often as every 3-4 days with the drought conditions we have right now. We use portable solar electric fencing and give them just enough space to keep them fed and happy for a few days at at time. The sheep trample a lot of the dried Broomsedge Bluestem. They nibble a little bit of it as well. They graze most of the other plants in the pasture. We give almost no ancillary feed; just a little fermented grains to move them from one paddock to the next. The sheep deposit manure and urine which fertilizes the soil and provides additional organic matter.
After the sheep are moved off the paddock, I will take our tractor… okay, it is actually just a riding mower, and I take down anything that is left standing in the paddock. Yes, this is more management than I desire to do, but I only plan to mow any given pasture one time, and one time only. As we knock down the Broomsedge Bluestem, we are making room for the other pasture plants to take their spot, to outcompete them. Ideally, I would mow right before the Broomsedge Bluestem is forming a seed head, but that is not always possible. But by knocking it down so that it cannot form a shading clump, we are giving the other plants an “unfair” advantage. This seems to be giving the other plants just the boost they need. Combined with our grazing method as described above, I don’t plan to ever mow an area twice.
Here I come to our proof. Our evidence that what we are doing is truly working. The photo at the top of the article (and below as well) shows our personalized rotational grazing method. In general, you can see how brown everything is. This is not normal for this time of year here in East Tennessee. But with our land management, we are still getting green growth… despite the drought!
In the far left is where I have just removed the sheep. Then in the center area is the area I have just mowed. Then to the right you can see the area that has already been grazed and mowed and rested for just over a week. No Broomsedge Bluestem. And lots of new, green growth! This is a mix of pasture grasses and forbs (non-grass herbaceous flowering plant… sheep love these!).
This Permaculture stuff works. Even in drought!
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