Decisions…decisions…

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The rain has finally come! And the grass (and most likely weeds aplenty) start to grow. The air is suddenly full of hope that the struggles of the past months, or perhaps years of either no, or minimal rainfall are going to become nothing more than a bad memory.

But are the struggles really over? Or perhaps just beginning?

To minimise damage to their landscape from continued animal pressure, some people completely destocked their properties as part of their drought management plan.  This strategy potentially reduces the risk of being trapped on a treadmill of sourcing fodder at ever escalating prices for who knows how long! And what about stock water? What happens when it runs out? These people do not have these burdens to carry. Rather they carry the burden of not knowing when it will change. How long will they have to survive not just with no income to service commitments and costs of living; but also with no productive potential.

Others have chosen to feed livestock. Some choose to feed all their animals and some choose to feed only an essential core such as young breeders. These people have lived with the burden of sourcing fodder at ever escalating prices.   They have watched the condition of their landscape (and possibly their livestock) deteriorating daily, and their water supplies dwindling. If the drought continues for long enough, people face the reality that further destocking is forced upon them, now at much reduced prices for poorer conditioned animals. How long can they maintain the endless grind of feeding hungry animals, as well as the costs; financial, mental and environmental? Have they accounted for the true cost of this method of maintaining productive potential?

And there are infinite variations in between these strategies. Everyone does things somewhat differently. Even if on a surface level they look similar.

So meaningful rains have now come, and herbage is growing. We imagine the struggle is over. But really we have just swapped one set of uncertain circumstances for another.

How long will the rains last? Will they really end the drought? How much of the rain did my landscape actually capture? Do I have plant life that can utilise the rain? When should I stop feeding (if I was)? When should I restock? What do I do with the weeds? What do I do with the bare ground?

There is no simple answer. And for sanity’s sake there can be no judgement. The decisions we need to make after the rains come are as complex and difficult as those we made when the rain first stopped.

Our recovery process following drought is determined by the management decisions we made during the drought, as they dictate how well our landscape functions when rain finally comes. For example – did the rains sweep off our land as there was no groundcover to retain them, and so recovery is slow? But our dams/ponds are full – hopefully with water only and not manure and soil! Or was all the rain absorbed, creating a speedy pasture recovery? But we may still have no surface water to water livestock as we had no run-off!

And what of the danger of grazing that first green pick and the first flush of feed?  Livestock can rapidly lose condition when graziers / ranchers stop feeding with the coming of the first flush of green grass. If livestock had been carried through the drought it is ideal that they be kept contained in a sacrifice paddock with full supplementary feeding in the stage of this first flush of green feed. This helps avoid the livestock health problems that arise from a sudden transition to watery, inadequate feed.

Grazing the first flush of feed should be avoided whenever possible as this quick growth is the plant trying to get maximum solar panels up in order to start photosynthesizing and producing energy. The grazing of this first flush merely draws more reserves from an already stressed plant – weakening it further. This actually hinders recovery from the drought and helps move us more quickly into the next one!

Our grazing decisions are best made from a foundation of considering what we are aiming to achieve in managing our landscape as farmers, ranchers, or graziers? The decisions we made during the drought have set the scene for the starting point from which we now begin to imagine what next.

A great first step is to look back at how we managed things during the drought. Whilst it is still fresh in our memory we can re-assess everything we did, and why at the time we did it, in order to see whether there are decisions we could have made differently that may have made it easier for us to be closer to where we desire to be than we currently are. This is obviously with the benefit of hindsight and not an exercise in “kicking oneself!” It is purely an exercise in understanding what we could do differently next time that may make our landscape, our bank balance, or our personal well-being healthier.

And then- in the absence of a crystal ball to accurately foresee the future, we make decisions about what to do next. I thought the rain was meant to make things easier! But then the only reason one would be involved in agriculture is because one loves a challenge, I think!

We are always being ‘forced’ to make decisions, by the virtue of the fact that doing nothing is actually a decision.  The best we can do is make informed decisions – observing as we do so the motivations for why we made ‘that’ decision and not another; and then observe what happens as the result of that decision. Did it bring us closer to, or further away from, where we wish to be?

In the instance of our property, we finally had meaningful rains in January and February of this year after 2 ½ years of horrific dry. On top of being completely burnt out in February of last year. We burnt so well because we had made the decision to totally destock the week before the fire to preserve the productive potential of our pastures for when rain might come. We had fuel to burn – and it did!

With only sporadic light falls of rain in the year following the fire we had no real recovery. Resulting in around 30% groundcover – as opposed to above 95%. When the rains came there was no germination of either grasses or weeds in the bare spaces as the seed was presumably consumed in the hot fire. 330mm  (13”) of rain later we have grass nearly to the tops of the fences – but with no substance – mostly seed head. Still only 30% groundcover and winter coming. We are in a summer dominant growth area.

Our grazing decisions are focused on keeping stock off pastures long enough for ground cover to re-establish.  Our quandary has been – should we source cattle to create high stock density to quickly smash the long stuff down to feed the soil micro-organisms and integrate the energy of livestock into our environment. Or should we leave the seed set to prepare us for future growth events? Either is equally valid. And they each will have differing results. There is no right and wrong – just a decision to be made. And results to be observed in order to add to our own understanding and to help inform our future decision making.

There are no simple answers – so do not seek them. Look at how your decisions have contributed to where you are now, and imagine how the decisions you are making now are going to transpire into the future. Observe how they transpire and be not afraid to change them if they do not seem to be creating what you wish to achieve. Always be observing – your place and others – and questioning everything. Particularly question fixed ideas and perspectives of either yourself or others

By Angus Deans

Angus is available for coaching to empower you to create a thriving, profitable and regenerative farm business and can be contacted by phoning +61 428 729 242 or emailing angusd@integritysoils.com