Weather, Water and Chess

With the forest fire up at High Level currently burning out of control and early concerns of summer drought already making headlines in the news, we are reminded of the many reasons that we need to increase the water holding capacity on our farms. Whether or not we are all on board with the idea of man induced climate change, I think most of us can agree on the fact that we are going to have extreme weather events and that we are definitely going to experience droughts in the future. Water is all too often the most limiting nutrient on our operations. As farmers we are very well aware that while we can control our seeding rates, how many head of cattle we run, what breeds of animals and seeds we grow, what equipment we use and how straight our fence lines are; the weather is still one of the few things that remain beyond our control.

The weather makes for excellent conversation at the local coffee shop and often gives us long nights of contemplating what our next move might be in this agricultural chess game, followed by early mornings of action as we put our pieces into place. I want to propose a new approach, I propose that we thwart the strategy of our opponent right from the outset of the game. It’s time that we became proactive rather than reactive. That we get to a place where we can shout out checkmate before the weather has moved its first pawn. It all sounds great on paper, but what exactly does that look like in real life?

Throughout all areas of agriculture recently there has been so much emphasis placed on soil health. And rightfully so. The health of our soil has an effect on not only our plant health, our animal health, but on human health as well. When we take care of our soil we are taking care of so much more than just the dirt below our feet. A single handful of healthy soil is home to more living organisms than there are people on earth. As farmers it is our responsibility to ensure that it is in good enough condition to continue to be an integral part of life. The results of this emphasis on soil health has been an increase in the uptake of best management practices in both cropping systems and in animal agriculture. It will also hopefully continue to be a reason to educate ourselves about what we can do to regenerate our land and water. Another benefit that has come from this push for soil health has been the increased water holding capacity of our land and riparian areas. With healthy soil comes a functional water cycle. When the water hits the ground it has the opportunity to seep down to the roots of the plants that depend on it, to hydrate the living organisms below our feet and move slowly to fill our dugouts, lakes and rivers. We as farmers then see so much utility out of that water that we watch fill our rain gauges. Without healthy soil we are bound to witness most of this water running off or evaporating.

We saw the water cycle in action a couple of years ago on our farm. Our area near Busby was in the middle of an extreme drought. Most of our dugouts were in the process of drying up and we were starting to worry about how we were going to water 800 head of thirsty cattle if we didn’t receive any rain in the next couple of weeks. Not long afterwards we ended up receiving a torrential downpour in which we received almost four inches of rain in a very short period of time. While people were canoeing in the Sobey’s parking lot in Westlock, we were excitedly driving out to see our dugout that would have certainly filled up. We had been managing the piece of land that that the cattle were on for over 10 years and must have certainly caught the majority of that water! As we arrived at the dugout we realized that we really didn’t catch any more water than the four inches that had fallen. At least there was enough to last the cattle until we moved off of that piece of land. Over the next couple of weeks though that dugout continued to fill. We were incredibly excited when we realized that the reason it took so long to access that water is that it went through the soil first. Rather than just running off the top of the soil, every single plant in that pasture had access to that water before it made its way to where we thought that we needed it most. We knew how much rotational grazing could help the plants grow through and recover after a drought, but until this point we had never seen such a visual reminder of how the water cycle actually works and how much healthy soil can make a difference in this important cycle.

Our real life practices that promote a healthy water cycle are things like: no tilling, crop rotations, cover crops, intercropping, integrating animals onto cropping systems, rotational grazing, fencing off riparian areas, watering out of troughs, using grazing animals on land susceptible to wild fires, responsible use of pest and weed control and maintaining biodiversity in our pastures, crops and soils. There are so many excellent resources on how to put these practices into play on our operations, but the first step is always awareness. It’s one thing to have rainfall, but a whole other to have effective rainfall. Best management practices and ultimately soil health will play a huge part in our water holding capacity, our drought resiliency and our susceptibility to wildfires. So I guess to some extent we actually can control the weather as farmers!

If you would like to learn more about any of the practices above we welcome questions here at GRO and for anything that we don’t know, we will happily point you in the direction of an expert. Checkmate!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization