Sometimes this column is full of dry facts and technical matters to do with agriculture and ranching.
Other times it is about feelings about what ranching is and how it feels to be a farmer.
Feelings motivate us to do certain things. They can stifle ambition.
When weather is a deciding factor, and that is negative (too wet, too cold, too hot or dry) then our ambition can be stifled. While weather can affect tourism, logging and construction, farmers are by far the most dependent on the right weather for many activities.
It feels like the spring rush is short and intense because the ground has to warm up and dry out for seeds to germinate. Then, once planted, crops will require rain or the application of irrigation water, unless the soil has enough organic matter to hold water in reserve.
This year, the weather has been a combination of wet and cold. So, while the cool season plant varieties in hayfields and pasture are growing, they are slow to mature—the point at which the food value is highest.
On the other hand, if the weather had been dry (drought) the plants in perennial stands may have bolted to seed at which point the feed value of the stand is diminished.
So here we are this week, contemplating a start to haying or silage making.
The weather may be right enough — hay requires drying time and heat to cure, whereas haylage or silage is put up with higher moisture content. It is, therefore, ready to process (usually baling and plastic wrapping), but could be put to a pit or silo which will have the air excluded for the curing process.
Unless we can depend upon having the “old time summer” where we have long periods of heat once the hay is ripe, we have to process what we can when we have short periods of good weather.
If we snooze, we may lose, in the sense that summer and fall rains or late run off from mountain snow melt may make it impossible to get the crop up. Last summer and fall it was so wet that many people could not get on their hayfields.
All of this is to say that it can be nerve wracking to know what to do. If the range is not ready and an operation doesn’t have private or rented pasture, then delays of turning out the cattle can be worrisome, in that we might be overgrazing early spring pastures. Remember that the first official day of summer is this weekend after which the days get shorter even though, thank goodness, they should be getting warmer.
This year we say the season is late. It has not even felt like spring is really here yet summer is upon us. Old timers of my parents’ generation used to say that if you got a new crop in the ground by July 1, then you could expect the annuals (barley, oats, wheat etc.) to mature and be a significant green-feed (put up as hay or silage) for a cattle operation. With cool springs and summer droughts I am not so sure of this formula.
On a side note, the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association puts out a weekly report on the state of readiness and growth of alfalfa, the most favoured plant for high feed value. Last week harvest had been started. The reports note various qualities and characteristics of the stands they examine.
Optimum time to harvest depends on what you want the crop for. Earlier harvest, when alfalfa is 10 per cent in bloom, is the time of highest carbohydrates, sugar, and protein for animal growth.
Good farmers allow alfalfa to get to at least the 10 per cent blossom at least once a year in order to keep a strong stand capable of withstanding drought and winter kill.
While southern parts of B.C. and some of the interior river benches (Fraser) can get more than one crop, in most of the Cariboo we are lucky to get one crop and let the cows eat the second (regrowth) crop in the fall.
I have convinced myself that we have a lot of considerations and that brings stress compounded by unusual weather patterns (not a new normal, but a new variability).
I am most respectful of those farmers that get their timing just right and often outsmart the weatherman.
David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.