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Drought management is a very long game, says master grazier

Getting through a year like this one is at the heart of the management system Graeme Finn uses

From what you seed to how much is grazed, there’s a lot that goes into proper pasture management, Graeme Finn of Union Forage and Southern Cross Livestock told attendees at a recent West Central Forage Association field tour.

Managing for a drought should start the day you begin ranching.

That was the message from Graeme Finn of Southern Cross Livestock for attendees at a recent field tour put on by the West Central Forage Association.

“This year is the wrong year to start thinking about drought management,” said the Aussie native who now ranches just west of Madden. “Don’t start thinking about it when it’s like this. We’ve got to start thinking about it every single day we ranch — not the day before we need to think about it or the year it turns dry.”

In a presentation on grazing during a drought, Finn encouraged his audience to adopt that mantra.

At Southern Cross Livestock, he has three types of pastures: a winter one, a calving pasture and a fattening pasture. All feature a diversity of annual and perennial crops, and Finn always leaves crop residue.

“I’m taking half and leaving half, and trampling some in and letting some grow,” he said.

[VIDEO] Graeme Finn at a West Central Forage Association event discusses soil management and cover crops.

He also tries to build shade into his pastures, which is important in hot weather. That comes in the form of crop residue and thatch on the soil, which help keep the soil cooler and Finn also tries to build up soil organic matter (through nutrient recycling from manure and urine). He also utilizes plants with long roots in his pasture mixes and as the roots and bulbs rot, they open up pathways for moisture infiltration.

But it’s the management of grazing that drives the system.

“Every part of our operation has livestock integration,” he said. “We don’t crop at all, except for winter swath grazing. We have 240 head running on 240 acres from November to April 15, and then they go to bluegrass calving paddocks, and to high-legume milking paddocks or fattening paddocks.

The paddocks are all small cells so when the cattle are let in, they’re grazing intensively. And Finn always leaves one or two paddocks untouched each year — even in a drought year.

“We’re going to leave that 40-acre cell and another 80-acre cell at another place, and we’re not going to touch it,” he said. “It’s the first paddock that we will go to when we start in the spring.”

The ‘take half and leave half’ rule is rigorously obeyed, too.

“In perennial stands that have been grazed properly, half of the plant gets eaten down, but it doesn’t affect the root system,” he said.

It’s a rule that’s doubly important in drought conditions as paddocks that are overgrazed are going to be the first ones in trouble in stressful conditions.

“You don’t think about the year of the drought, you think about the year that’s coming to be a drought,” said Finn. “That’s why you’re always conservative on your forages.”

His pastures are a mix of sainfoin, vetches, alfalfa sweet clover and grasses. Legumes make up about 70 per cent of the mix and Finn likes them because of their long taproot.

“Don’t be afraid of legumes, they’re the best plant we’ve got,” he said.

He likes grasses in good years.

“If you’re overloaded with grasses, start grazing hard and seed legumes in your pastures. When you seed a legume, seed it and then don’t touch it for a year.”

Litter is a huge way to improve the soil. Through the years, Finn increased organic matter to 9.2 per cent, which significantly improves moisture infiltration and retention. Bale and swath grazing are key practices and a pasture should have a good layer of thatch. Healthy soils have earthworms, and support strong populations of mycorrhizal fungi and rhizobia.

During a drought, Finn said he uses smaller paddocks to discourage fussy grazing.

“If you don’t practise proper grazing, the cattle will start picking what they want to eat and leave the stuff that they don’t,” he said. “Then they will not eat it when you come back through.”

Finn puts 50 head on 50 acres for five days, then he moves on, and keeps moving.

“Part of drought management is just making small paddocks for cell grazing — rotational grazing using electric fencing,” he said.

This allows him to extend his grazing by adding single hot wires everywhere. He uses fibreglass posts from the oil industry to make his paddocks, creates a single laneway to water, and recommends using a fault tester.

And although he has a lot of electric fencing, Finn said it’s part of “drought management, too.”

“This stuff is so cheap (compared) to buying hay,” he said. “Electric fence is about 80 cents a foot with a single hot wire like this.”

But the cheapest way to manage for a drought is to avoid overstocking, he said.

“At a lot of places I see, it’s not the moisture but the cattle numbers the guy is running. He’s running for a perfect year every year.”

And if you have to de-stock, take out the old cattle.

“Keep those younger females. You’ve got the genetics in your herd already, so the older ones can keep moving on,” he said.


For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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