Planning for the Unexpected

May 02, 2024

Knowing your context is important on your farm. But what happens when your context changes unexpectedly? No matter how well you plan, make goals, or manage your farm you will experience unexpected weather events. In the summer of 2023, many areas of Michigan had mild to severe drought followed by a wetter fall. Now, our winter has been very mild with low precipitation. Currently, many areas of the state are abnormally dry with several areas in northern Michigan and the upper peninsula experiencing moderate-severe drought conditions. How can we manage our crops and animals to reduce the side effects of these and future events?

Focusing on resilience and soil health mitigates the difficulties caused by drought, rain deluges, floods, or other catastrophic weather events. How can we determine if our fields or pastures have the resilience to hold up to disastrous weather events? Start with observations and consider the following: 

  1. How often is the soil disturbed? Even minimal tillage systems have negative effects on soil microbiology which in turn affects the soil’s ability to infiltrate and effectively hold water. While not all systems can eliminate tillage, how can the negative impacts be minimized? Can cover crops be incorporated to help rebuild soil structure?
  2. How long each year do you have living roots in the soil? Keeping a living root in the soil as long as possible allows root exudates to renew the soil aggregates. According to the NRCS, soil aggregates are groups of soil particles that bind to each other more strongly than to adjacent particles. Aggregate stability refers to the ability of soil aggregates to resist breaking down when disrupted. Even perennial pastures can have poor aggregation if animals are allowed to graze continuously or over-graze the plants, which affects the plant’s root health.Even perennial pastures can have poor aggregation if animals are allowed to be continuously grazing the plants which affect the root health of the plants as you can see below in Figure 1.
  3. Do you have a diversity of plants, microorganisms, wildlife, and livestock? The diversity above the soil has a direct impact on the diversity below the soil. While we tend to think of soil organisms, we can see such as earthworms, there are more microbes in one teaspoon of healthy soil than people on the Earth. Included in these microbes are bacteria, fungi, protozoans, algae, and nematodes. These organisms are important for nutrient cycling, decomposing organic matter, providing nitrogen through fixation to help grow plants, detoxifying harmful chemicals (toxins), suppressing disease organisms, and producing other components that might stimulate plant growth. Diversity can be encouraged by reducing tillage, planting cover crops, and moving livestock quickly through paddocks to leave more residue, which promotes future growth and biodiversity. 
  4. How long is the soil covered by living plants or residues each year? Living plants and residues throughout the year buffer the soil against temperature swings. Soil temperature directly affects plant growth. Most soil organisms function best at an optimum soil temperature. Soil temperature impacts nitrification and influences soil moisture content, aeration, and availability of plant nutrients. Can you raise the mower when making hay or move livestock more quickly through paddocks to leave more residue in the fields during growing and non-growing seasons? Can you plant cover crops that will die during the winter and leave residue on the field until it is time to plant the next crop? Can you incorporate living barriers or buffer strips around your fields?

Keeping records of your observations allows you to monitor how well your farm is infiltrating and holding onto water. How much water do you want to keep on your farm? Are your infiltration rates improving? Are you building soil aggregates? Many of the changes mentioned can be done in small increments as small on-farm trials. Management practices must fit your environment, context, and your farm goals. How can you change and adapt to the changing environment and improve your farming?

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