Drought Tips for Pastures


Living in upstate NY this year and managing pastures has been a tricky thing. Under normal conditions it’s sometimes difficult to see why one pasture performs better than another. Drought years force you to dig deeper, especially when one area grows 10x better than another.

The USDA has declared 15 counties in NY as natural disaster zones due to lack of rainfall. I’m right on the edge of a D2 zone.


See that red blob down in the bottom center of NY on the map? Well, I’m not far off the edge of that. I can also tell you that it’s been weeks since we’ve had rain at all. What we’ve gotten over the past month has hit hard and fast, running off as fast as it hits. The ground is so dry in most areas that it works like city streets.

You’ll hear a lot of grazers talk about animal impact. It doesn’t mean that the ground is bare and chewed up by the cattle hooves. Animal impact creates little divots in the ground. Why is this so important? 

Go back to that drought hardened ground. Now add little pot holes and missing chunks of pavement to that city street. What happens after a rain in the city? All the water pools in low spots, pot holes and missing chunks of pavement. Animal impact leaves a foot print mark, like a pot hole. Now when it rains, it gathers and pools in the uneven soil.

What else is important in a drought? Besides the water retention, it’s keeping what moisture you do get. Many have asked me how locally. (I’ll discuss that more in a second)

When starting seeds in elementary school, what did you do? Did you set them on a damp paper towel and slide them into a zip lock bag? Maybe stick them along the edge of a glass jar?

Those jars and bags did big things. They not only let you see the daily development but they also retained water. Remember those droplets of water clingy to the bag?

I started asking years ago about how to retain water in an open environment. Thankfully, I had a copy of Allan Savory’s book titled Holistic Management. In this book, I read information on soil cover and liter. No, not those plastic bags!

That soil cover and liter comes from other living materials. In pasture systems, that is dead grasses that develop over the soil. There’s additional benefits on that but I’ll save it for another post. 


The photo above shows good soil cover. This section of field was the thickest grass we used for hay. Can you imagine that brown liter of organic material working like plastic wrap? Don’t worry, I can’t either. This section of field also regrew almost 2 times fast than the photo below.


Now, this section didn’t perform well at all. The grass is thinner and regrowth was much, much slower. 

The upper photo has two components, 1- The soil cover retained moisture during high stress level times when we didn’t get rain and 2- it actually cools the surface of the soil so it doesn’t heat and evaporate as much as the lower photo.

This process takes years to build but there are some simple short cuts you can do. My favorite system is to allow the cattle to graze paddocks, after the grasses have matured. That maturity is important too. As the cows eat, they reseed the pastures and what left, you handle in the next stage. That stage is to clip the paddocks.

Most farms I’ve seen clip WAY too short too. My clip height is always over 4″ and most times closer to 6-8″. By clipping the paddocks on a graze half, leave half system, you are automatically gaining soil cover. Grazing creates a trampoling effect too which creates more.

That soil cover is what’s generated more grass than anyone else locally had.

Now back to those locals…

I’m the only farm that grazes cattle in at least 15 miles radius around me that hasn’t needed to feed a single bale of grass or needed to supplement with grain. That’s something I’ll talk more about in an upcoming post I’ll do about lessons learned in rotational grazing.

If anyone would like a virtual pasture walk via periscope, send me a tweet @CNYFarmgirl.

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