Drought Reserves 

Ok what I’m about to share with you is some serious stuff! Today were going to talk about drought reserves.

A drought reserve is forage (grass, forbs, brush or whatever your livestock will eat) that is not consumed by the animal during the growing season. This forage is then available if rain doesn’t come or can be grazed during the dormant season. The traditional and most logical way to build a drought reserve is to set aside some land and not graze it. If you need to, you can turn your livestock into these areas and they can survive on the forage you have stockpiled there. Think of this as a savings account. But instead of saving money, you are saving grass. In this case your savings account is separate from your checking account. Think of your checking account as grass that you are grazing, possibly multiple times a year. This might seem like a good idea but Ian uses a different way to build a drought reserve that is far superior to the traditional way of stockpiling grass. And best of all your entire farm/ranch is the drought reserve. You might be asking a lot of questions right now, let me try to answer some of them for you.

For example you might be asking “Why not set aside X amount of acres (or hectares) in case it doesn’t rain again?” The answer to that question is because you are not utilizing that grass that you’ve set aside. In other words once the grass reaches maturity it no longer produces leaf or energy that can be used by grazing animals. It’s a one shot deal. You grow the forage and then consume all of it during the drought. This would be like eating all the candy you get for halloween in one night instead of rationing it out during the year. Having candy year round sure would be nice, wouldn’t it? That’s exactly what a cow thinks too. She wants candy all year long.

Conversely, Ian grazes his grass plants lightly, taking only 1/3 of the plant. Why is this beneficial and how does it build a drought reserve? Because the grass plant has 2/3 of its original mass left it has a chance to collect solar energy because you’ve left some residual leaf. Leaves are how grass plants grow via photosynthesis. If you graze the entire grass plant it is forced to use energy reserved in its roots to form new growth, instead of the sun’s energy. In order to return to it’s former glory, the grass plant that has been grazed into the ground needs much longer to recover.

More tonnage of grass could be grown if you set aside your entire farm as the drought reserve by grazing only 1/3 of the plant during each grazing session. Ian calls this building your haystack. This doesn’t mean you only graze each paddock one time during the growing season, taking only 1/3. Then again, depending on your situation it could mean just that but in most cases this is not true. For example, Ian’s large cow-calf herd was in “paddock A” 30 days ago. “Paddock A” was lightly grazed by the animals and they only took 1/3 of the plant. Now it is time to graze “paddock A” again. Because of how lightly “paddock A” was grazed the fist time, the grass is growing very quickly. This means there is more grass than there was prior to the first rotation. Ian will again have his livestock only take the top 1/3 of the grass plant on this second rotation. There is still 2/3 left as the drought reserve. If they continue to receive rain, even more grass will be grown than was there during the two previous rotations! This is how Ian treats his entire farm. To reemphasize my point let’s say that for some reason it decides not to rain for 3 months. Ian now has his entire farm as the drought reserve, with 2/3 of the grass plants remaining. Even if he set aside 2,000 acres as a traditional drought reserve, meaning he doesn’t graze it at all during the growing season, it would pail in comparison to the amount of forage he’s produced on the other 10,000 acres when grazed properly (taking 1/3 and moving on).

Grass that is grazed in this manner also has a better nutrition profile. This means the grass has more energy(hydrogen) in it, due to the fact that it’s able to capture more sunlight and convert that into energy which keeps the grass palatable and enables the animals to utilize it to put on weight, breed and grow (this is referred to as animal performance). This is a huge contrast to the drought reserve that many people set aside, let grow to full maturity and stand dormant (even in the growing season) which consequently loses its nutritional profile with each passing day. Because the grass is dormant, it’s more of a “maintenance” diet than a high energy diet.

This is one of the most important concepts to grasp and I want to thank Ian for generously sharing it with me.

You really can have your cake and eat it too.

Chris Stelzer

Chris Stelzer is a published Author, founder of Agricultural Insights and creator of many resources that help family farmers and ranchers grow their businesses. His flagship courses are the Grazing Mastery Program and The Farm Marketing Mastery Program. 

Chris Stelzer

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