A drought is one of the biggest challenges a livestock producer can face. Water is everything. However, there are ways to minimize the effects of a drought on your fields with a simple yet effective tool – a flexible tine harrow. We have been using flexible tine harrows for over 45 years, selling them for 40 years, and manufacturing the Wingfield American Harrow right here in the USA, for the last 25 years.
Over the decades, we have talked to thousands of livestock operators at farm and ranch shows across the country. We have found a common theme among ranchers who harrow their way through a drought – they are able to keep their livestock grazing longer than anyone else in their area. This article will explain how a harrow can achieve these results in some of the harshest conditions.
The main goal during drought conditions is to keep your grass from going dormant. Once grasses go dormant, it will take soaking of rain to bring them back out of dormancy – something that most likely will never happen during a drought. So, the key is to take as many steps as possible to keep the grass growing.
First, it is important to note that studies have shown that cattle spend 75% of their time in less than 25% of the pasture. By concentrating in such a small area, the cattle will eat grass to the ground, followed by tramping it into dormancy. There is an easy way to get the cattle to utilize the entire pasture, all by harrowing. Cattle do not like to eat near their own manure, that is why you won’t see them eat within a foot of a cow pie and will wait till the grass is up to a foot tall before they start nibbling it off the top. By harrowing the area they spend the most time in, you are able to spread the manure out over a larger area, and the cattle will then move on to a different part of the pasture that is cleaner. So, by harrowing you are able to rotate cattle around the pasture. This allows the stressed area to recover; now you have spread out manure and kept the cattle off the area.
Knowing when to harrow the overgrazed areas is important as well. The optimal growth zone for grasses is between 3”-11”. Any higher than 11” and the grass loses protein and taste, and the cattle won’t graze it evenly. (Note: If your pasture reaches this condition, mow it to approximately 6”, or make it into hay. Plus, since you have been harrowing and spreading the manure, there is no worry that your wheel rake with put hunks of manure into your windrow, producing a quality bale that you can sell commercially.) Any lower than 3” and you risk the grass going completely dormant. So, you want to get the harrow out to the pasture before it hits below 3” to give it the best chance at surviving through a drought.
Besides spreading manure, the harrow also pulls up thatch. One pound of thatch can hold 8 pounds of water. In drought conditions, every drop of water counts. So, if a storm comes through and drops only a couple tenths of an inch of rain, the thatch will soak it up, robbing the soil of any water. A harrow will pull that thatch away from the ground and scratch the surface a little allowing any precipitation or heavy dews to come into contact with the soil instead of the thatch.
While not enough rain during a drought is a problem, having too much rain in too short of a time can be less helpful than it should be. We prefer for our customers to focus more on their hillsides than the bottom areas of their pastures, because keeping a tall healthy growth on the slopes will slow the water flowing downhill. This allows more water to soak into the soil, instead of sheeting off and washing away with minimal benefit to your pasture.
The reality is that you can’t harrow too much - the more you harrow the more benefits you see. We have had customers that were able to graze two months after their neighbors were feeding hay - all because of intensive harrowing. With intensive harrowing you can put more cattle on fewer acres, and provide some protection from the effects of a drought. In this day and age, a producer needs every advantage they can get over Mother Nature, and it can be found in a simple yet effective tool – a flexible tine harrow.