When a flood drowns half your cows: yin and yang of resilience

In Spring of 2016, the rains kept coming in Louisiana and flooded thousands of farms. Steve has some of the prettiest, flattest pastures in Winn Parish, Louisiana.  But when the Dugdemona River covered his land with 8 feet of water and his cows were struggling to keep their heads above water, it was not so pretty.  The farmhouse is on a little hill and the cattle would have been safe there, but a line of trees hides the hill.  The cows couldn’t see it from the flooded pasture.

When the waters started to rise, Steve, his sons and a group of 15 friends had 8 boats in the water trying to herd the cows to the safe hill.  The cows wouldn’t go anywhere where they couldn’t touch ground.  So they were swimming in circles around the highest spots in the pasture.  Nearly every cow had a 400-600 lb. yearling calf with them which couldn’t touch the ground.

Steve’s group of friends began roping the calves from the boats, putting halters on them and pulling them to the hill.  The hope was that the mama cows would hear their calves and swim over, but none did.  The men kept working till it was so dark it was dangerous.  They opened up the hay barn so the remaining cows could climb on the bales and save themselves.

At first light, Steve and his sons sped out in their boats to the pasture.  Some cows were up on the hay, others were up on the crepe feeders and the tractor, anywhere they could keep their heads above water.  With three boats they began roping the cows and pulling them to high ground.  Redundancy and connectivity are required for resilience.

Ninety-eight dead cows and calves were floating in the 200 acre pasture. Steve knew each one of them.  He’d looking them in the eyes and watched over them for years. Hard to even look at them.  And nothing except the tractor was insured. Dead cows everywhere.

Steve and his friends had saved nearly have the herd: 86 cows and half grown calves.  Some matched some didn’t.  Steve tags and keeps records on all his cows on his cell phone, so he knew which were orphans.  His still has a few orphan calves in a back pasture where he is hoping they will gain weight and return to normal.

So sad. Maybe Steve’s story makes you feel sorry for him and want to comfort him. That’s the vulnerable, yin, emotional way. The complement is resilient, yang, practical. Duality is found in most aspects of resilience. As yin and yang are parts of a oneness that is the Tao, so are networking and independence complementary aspects of resilience. Redundancy that is controlled. Diversity that is complementary. Accumulating and releasing reserves and infrastructure. Conservative innovation.  Only local self-organization and it’s integration with local ecosystems appears to be a non-dualistic. Or is it?

Yin and yang of cattle systems. The resilient system must be yielding and female or yin, but also tough and male or yang. Yin and yang are complementary forces that interact to form a dynamic system.  Steve’s system must be able to take the flood and still recover.

In Taoism, distinctions between good and bad, along with other dichotomous moral judgments, are perceptual, not real.  A flood is not evil or good.  It has aspects of both.  Flooding makes bottom land fertile, just as it wipes away misplaced houses. In the ethics of Confucianism on the other hand, a moral dimension is attached to the idea of yin and yang.

Both providing sympathy and helping save the drowning cattle are appropriate responses. Both are needed.

After the flood Steve had to replace the fences on the north and south sides of the farm.  The flood came from the north and swept through the farm all the way to the south.  He’s also gradually rebuilding his herd as he finds good mama cows.

He found twenty good mama cows in Mississippi with big calves and already bred  back.  The mamas have calved since he bought them. The ones with spotted white on their faces are out of a black Simmental bull.  Steve liked the calves so much he went back to Mississippi to try to buy the Simmental bull, but the owner wasn’t selling. The all white calves are from a Charolais bull.

Which cattle breed is best? Steve’s first cattle were red Limousin.  Known as Limousine in France, this breed was first imported to the US in the 1960s and is now in 70 countries.  Limousin looks like an Angus on steroids—a lot more muscular, longer and taller.  They make a fine show cow.  Steve’s children showed them at fairs.  But for a commercial herd, you just can’t beat Angus.

These days his herd is mostly black with some Brahma.  Brahma was the first beef cattle breed developed in the United States. It was bred in the early 1900s as a cross of four different Indian cattle breeds: Gyr, Gujarat, Ongole and Krishna Valley imported into the United States between 1854 and 1926.

Brahma tolerates heat better than breeds bred in Northern Europe such as Hereford and Angus.  Their thick hide also makes them less susceptible to insects.  They’ve spread throughout hot, tropical areas of the world and are especially popular in Australia.

Steve’s Dad was a big believer in Brahma, even had some registered Brahma. The main drawback of Brahmas is the quality of the meat.  Indian cattle were not bred for meat, since killing a cow was a sin in India—hence the phrase, “Holy cow.” Over the eons, cattle bred for meat in Northern Europe developed genes which are activated during curing and make the meat more tender.

Consequently, Brahma in the US are mainly used in crossbreeding to add some heat and insect tolerance to the breeds with the best meat.

The Angus breed, due to zealous marketing by the breed association, is best known for high quality meat.  Angus has become a better and better animal since Steve was a boy.  The Angus brought to the US by Steve’s English ancestors were much smaller and skinnier.

Steve is contemplating starting a registered Angus herd.  He has a young Red Angus bull which was having a lot of fun with a group of young heifers as we drove through their field.  Red Angus is becoming really popular, so it might be a good route into developing a registered herd to sell breeding stock. He’s also interested in a new breed, Limflex, which is 50/50 Limousin and Angus

He’s stuck with black Angus up to this point since selling he’s been selling most of his calves in Arcadia to the Russels  Hays brothers angus farm.  They give him a premium of 10 cents pound because he’s been using their bulls

Steve could still add about 30 mama cows.  His 200 acres of pasture can support about 100 cows and their calves.  It could support more if he bought hay, but he cuts his own hay off some of his land, so that cuts into what is available for grazing.  He’s convinced its not economical to cut your own hay on a small place like his.  The cost of equipment makes large hay producers much more cost effective since they can spread the cost over more acres resulting in less unit cost per bale.

Another farmer once told Steve that any cattle farmer is really in the grass business and Steve has taken that to heart.  He is devoted to having great grazing for his cattle.  That means maintaining the fertility of his soil.  He does that through chicken litter.  An egg farm five miles away provides all the fertility he needs.  He can’t justify fertilizing any other way.  However, if the source of his chicken litter was further away, the cost of transport would eat him up.

Chicken litter does pose some problems.  He once applied some to ground close to his house when it was 28 degrees and the wind was blowing away from the house.  Then he went on a short trip and came back to temps in the 80s and a south wind blowing the chicken litter smell into his house.  He was not popular at home for a while.

Spreading the chicken litter can also be a problem.  The drivers of the chicken litter trucks “don’t have to pass an IQ test.”  One got confused and drove into a two-year-old pine forest.  Steve followed the tracks of a dozer which had crossed his pastures to the pines and found a big pile of manure next to where the driver had gotten stuck.

Another problem with chicken litter is that too much of it can make phosphorus levels too high.  That’s the cause of huge blooms of algae in the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie and just about any body of water where farmers are applying too much fertilizer to their soils.

He always aerates his fields before fertilizing. His big drum aerator “takes a good tractor to pull it.” Six inch iron cleats does good job punching holes to get air into the soil the cattle have compacted.

Steve is careful to keep weeds out of his pastures.  He sprays with a broad-leaf herbicide every few years to keep them under control.  “Grazeonnext gets goat weed, horse nettle, and almost all broadleaves. Common thistle’s roots are too deep, so when he “spots a thistle, I go and dig it out immediately.”  “Many farmers see weeds sprouting when they put out chicken litter and think the weed seeds came with the litter.  But the weed seeds were there all the time and the litter just gave them enough fertility to grow faster than the grass can.”

One problem with Grazeonnext is that it also kills clover.  Steve likes to see clover in his pastures. so he sprays after the clover has set seed, usually in June.  He bush hogs the pastures to spread the seed around.  “When everything back is growing back fast, then I spray. Herbicides kill best when the plants are growing fast.”

His Dad had donkeys to keep the thistles eaten out.  Steve let the herd of donkeys grow to 44. When they were fewer, they were a great help keeping the coyotes from bothering the cows, but when you have “too many they bond together.  You want donkeys to bond with the cows.  With a little Brahma in the cows, it take a pack of coyotes to take a baby.  He’s never lost a calf to coyotes.  He does invite “trappers in at the end of April or early May and hey trap [the coyotes] back before the fawn population hits the ground.  Coyotes really work on fawns.”

He loves Bermuda grass in his pastures.  The heifer field is the Alicia cultivar of Bermuda grass.  “It does well on higher ground, but not so good in the wet places. That means the meadow is infiltrated by native grasses.” So now he plants Russell which likes wet ground.

Sprigging. The Alicia bermudagrass hybrid was sprigged when Steve 15 years old. He aerates it every 2-3 years.  The rest of  his pature is a mix of bermuda and native grasses. He’s just springged 30 acres near the river in Russel. When the Alicia was sprigged, seven acres required 100 bales of hay.  The land was disked, then the bales spread out on the land and then disked in.

Sprigging 30 acres of Russell only required 30 bales.  The bales used for sprigging are not normal bales of hay.  They are baled green and must be kept wet from baling till sprigging.This time he used a sprigging implement. Pulled by a 100 horse power tractor, the sprigger cuts a furrow, puts the spring down and then covers it up.  The guy running the sprigger told him you won’t see much for a few weeks.  Since they did the sprigging the first of September, the sprigger guy said don’t think about it till next spring.  Steve has noticed that bermuda sprouts back in the spring on ridges from bales fed there in summer.

You don’t need to replant bermuda as long as you fertilize it and keep the weeds out. Healthy bermuda spreads and keeps other species choked out.  Alicia does get outcompeted in the lower ground.  Russel doesn’t.

Good pasture requires soil which is not too acid and all the government experts say take a soil sample of all your fields to find out what they need.  When he was younger he followed all the scientific methods, tested the soil in the pasture near his house.  It needed two tons of lime to make the pH halfway decent.  This two hundred acres was run by his father then and his Dad said this soil is fine, you don’t need to test its pH.  Steve insisted, his father relented.  The report of the soil sample said the pH was perfect.  Steve realized them he had more to learn about farming. Steve well illustrates the conservative innovation quality of resilient systems.

Dad passed in Jan 2006.  Steve sold off most of his cattle since the farm was almost out of hay. Fencing was dilapidated, since his Dad hadn’t been able to keep it up.   The sensible course of action would have been to plant pines.  That’s what has happened to much of the agricultural land in Winn Parish.  But by this time, Steve had begun to appreciate the rewards and challenges of farming.  So he didn’t plant pines like most would have, but started another herd.

You can take the boy off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. No one who knew Steve when he was younger would have predicted he’d become a farmer. When Steve left the farm to go to college, he didn’t want to ever come back to farming.  “I said I’d never fool with another cow when got out of high school.  But it’s in my blood.” He also finds that working on the farm ” get the stress out.”

After college, Steve became a CPA and spent all his time working in town on accounting and investment advising.  He moved back to Winnfield in 1985 to start his accounting  business.  His kids wanted to show cattle like the other kids.  This gradually pulled him back into farming.  As he realized farming and cattle were in his blood and he began to spend more and more time helping his Dad on the farm where he grew up.

Steve has a successful career as a CPA and investment advisor. Now his wife says his CPA/investment business is a part time job. His off-farm job also has let him accumulate reserves and purchase infrastructure. Accumulating reserves and infrastructure is another quality of resilient systems.

Steve put in a corral and working pen with a shed and a couple of squeeze chutes.  He also has a calf table which is really a mini-squeeze chute. The table squeezes the calf’s head and sides and tilts up enabling him to easily vaccinate and castrate the calves.  His came from Filson Livestock Equipment.

A friend with 300 head recently borrowed the calf table. After using it once, the friend said, “Oh my gosh, I will own one as soon as I can find one.” His 26 year old son is the happiest because he no longer has to throw the calves by hand

He’s also built hay barn in center of where feed hay.  In 10 minutes can have hay out for cattle. And not have to doodle it couple rows at a time

Conservative innovation. He’s made a bunch of changes his father would never have countenanced.  His father would “roll over in his grave if he saw how much I feed my calves.”  Many farmers agree with his dad. He has a friend in Montana, Phil Murdock, who has 2500 cows.  Steve says he “feeds only when he has to. When you start to feed, the cows go on welfare.” He’s seen that in his cows.  They gather up not far from where he feeds hay.  “The heifers follow me everywhere I go thinking I might have sack of feed.  I don’t use horses or dogs in cattle, pen em with feed, so need them to follow me.

Steve has seen the value of feeding protein and mineral supplements.   He feeds his “calves even when I have grass for them. Calves explode when they get that crepe feed. [Feeding calves] also keeps the cows fatter and save some pasture.”

He also feeds “the cows 4-5 lbs of protein supplement per cow per day and all hay they want.”  He finds the “protein pellets makes breed back.  No conception problems at all.”

Another change from traditional practices is going from traditional spring calving to fall calving.  Up North, spring calves make sense.  Calves hit the ground when there is lots of grass for their mothers to make milk and when the weather is nice.  But in Louisiana, Steve feels fall is the time for calves to be born.

When fall calves are ready to sell in the spring, there is usually a price increase. In late summer and fall, the price falls off some.  Also calves don’t gain much in the hot Louisiana summer.  “When prices were high–till 12-18 months ago–it paid to crepe.  Might not now but it takes the pressure off mama cows. Their calves are getting what they need from something besides her.”

Though he likes October and November calves, one had just been born the day we arrive. We saw the afterbirth hanging from a mama cow and went looking for the baby. We spotted it on a ridge 100 yards away. “We can’t go up to babies or they’ll run into the woods. Best is toleave them alone, mama put them somewhere safe.”

Redundancy. What will happen to the farm after he passes? His “oldest son is a pastor by trade and his youngest just got MA in accounting and is working for my brother’s oil company.  He won’t push them to farm. “Hard telling what will happen.”

It will be a long time before Steve expects to retire.  Most of his present cows won’t last that long. “Some of my cows are 20 years old, but usually at 10 years old they are smooth mouthed and don’t graze as well.” Their teeth  are worn down.  “We’re in the grass business so we gotta have cows who can harvest grass efficiently.  Some horses are just easy keepers, and some cows are the same way.”

One long term project Steve hopes to get going is silvopasture.  He has 80-90 acres in pine which he plans to thin ang get grass established underneath.  He’s already “got a fire lane all around and it’s mature so we can open it up.  Eventually when we harvest all of it, we may turn it all into pasture.”

Soil conservation and beef cattle groups are all pushing silvoculture in Louisiana. LSU Agcenter at Homer has a demonstration plot. At Sykes, LA, “Mervin Parker, main man for lumber company, has got grass under pines.” He likes the idea of silvopasture because ” we need shade in Louisiana in the summer. I’ve only got shade at the fence rows and he boundary. Dark cows really need it.”  The problem is that with “too much shade, the grass won’t grow.  My limited shade means I get barren areas and hot spots due to too much manure because that’s where cattle stay.  Silvoculture spreads out manure.”

How wide does the spacing need to be? “I asked that, they didn’t say exactly, but said to bring it down at 25 years old to 50 stems per acre; 100 stems at 20 years old; 50 at 25 then harvest after that at 30.” He may not harvest depending on pine prices.

He doesn’t see how it makes sense to start a silvopasture system on bare ground. Pines branch out too much unless they are closely spaced. To sell pine you need a long, tall, unbranched trunk.  Some of the researchers say you can start with “big corridors and prune up 20 feet tall for $1 a tree. He’s skeptical he could get the pruning done for that.

“I’d never do it from scratch.”  But by transforming an existing pine plantation, a farmer “might get more out of grazing than out of pine trees.  And you’ll get lots of growth on pines if there are only 50 per acre.” Wider spacing between trees means you can also fertilize with chicken litter if you want to.

You do have to use a different variety of grass. What variety of grass should be planted in partial shade? Coastal or common bermuda or bahia grass is the answer he’s been given..

He won’t destump initially.  He’ll broadcast grass on it and as stumps rot a little, pull out stumps and put on improved grass.

The same meeting where silvopasture was being pushed had an interesting climate change presentation by a meteorologist from LSU.  This guy said “we are slightly warmer than it used to be, but its been going on for years, way before man.  Man has influence but not primary reason.”

We’d spent several hours at Steve place by this time so it was time to wrap things up so we didn’t wear out our welcome.  We all got back into the ATV and headed back to our trucks.

He wasn’t finished talking about silvopasture.  He recently bought 1000 acres adjoining his farm from Weyerhouser–mainly to hunt on, but also “to keep someone from buying it.”  He’ll put some into silvopasture but most for recreation. “In the pines the ground is higher and grass will grow well.  But some of it has “slough bottom land that’s too wet for pasture.”

Feral hogs.  We finished up our visit with some talk about feral hogs.  Steve usually sets up two big corral traps in the spring, but didn’t last year due to the flood.  He had “more hogs in deer season than I can remember.  We had lots of pasture damage and deer corn and rice bran eaten up.” in the past, hog hunters were catching and selling them to be released. The state is trying to stop that, but without much success.  There is a new regulation which says you “can’t transport wild feral hogs until you are certified and move them only to a certified facility.”

Before the range laws, people used to let their hogs run free. They’d go out in the spring with “specially trained dogs which catch sows by their snout and hold ’em while the owner grabs the little pigs with a noose then carves his registered mark in their ears and castrate males.”

The county seat of Winnfield now has a sporting event called “Hog Dog Days.” In hog dog trials, the dogs can’t catch the hogs, baying is all they can do.”  Steve once had a pit bull which “loved humans but was death on hogs and male dogs, just about killed my squirrel dog.”

One he saw a feral “sow running across field, he dove and nailed in mid air on the snout.  The only way to get him off was to pry his jaw open with a stick in jaw or choke him until he passed out but then when came to grabbed first thing he could see.  I didn’t keep him long.”

Electric wire can keep feral hogs out of his small plots. Steve likes to plant forage soybeans in food plot to attract the deer, but its “hard to get up cause the deer nip if off and hogs tear it up.”  He keeps both at bay by putting in two fences 3 feet apart. On the outside one he uses tape because its easy to see.  The outside wire is 18 inches tall and the inside fence (he used poly rope there) is two strands, one 10 in and the other 24 inches. It’s not tall, but the deer won’t jump it.  Bigger hogs rubbed  the 18 inch wire and stopped, others were stopped by the 10 inches wire.

Electric fencing isn’t so good around his pastures, he’s found.  It’s less expensive and quicker to put up, but caused a lot more problems.  Whenever there’s a wind, limbs break off, land on the wire and short it out.  Steve may not do any more electric and go back to barbed wire fence.

We ended our visit with some talk about horses, but Steve was ready to get back to work. We got in our truck and drove back to Arkansas.

What are our conclusions about the resilience of Steve’s system? Certainly the income from his town job and his huge network of friends mean that he’s accumulating reserves and infrastructure and has high connectivity. His discovery of the calf table shows his conservative innovation, but his abandonment of many tried and true practices of his Dad may indicate that his innovation is not conservative enough.  What would happen to this system if it couldn’t depend on his outside income?  Cattle used to feed from a young age will not adapt to a solely grass diet easily.  They might have to if he couldn’t afford to buy feed and hay.

Many cattle farmers have other jobs and care for their cattle on weekends and before and after work. This arrangement works for many, perhaps most cow-calf producers in the US. The USDA 2012 Ag Census  shows an average herd size of 40 head in the 915,000 cow-calf operations in the US.  No one can support a family with just 40 head of cattle.

This structure of the industry has lasted for generations, unlike the swine and poultry production, which is virtually all vertically integrated.  This cattle system, which requires income from other sources, appears remarkably resilient.  As long as the outside income sources don’t dry up and land is available.

It’s a challenging example of a system which is stable but so connected to other systems that it is not at all modular.  By itself it is not resilient, but with outside income and plentiful land, it is resilient. It’s similar to the monoculture row crops grown on the best farmland in the US. Lack of diversity and increasing pesticide use point to a system lacking resilience, yet, with support from federal commodity programs, the row crop system continues to control the best land in the country.

Outside forces can artificially support a non-resilient system.  Both the dominant row crop system and the cattle industry are being maintained in the mature phase through external factors.  They are not being permitted to take their natural course of release and reorganization.  A consequence is a vast decline in the restorative potential of much of the land consumed by these systems.

That’s not a conclusion one would reach from only visiting farms like Steve’s. We learned a lot about resilience at his farm.  It told us we need to factor in outside income to determine a better quantitative index of resilience. A daunting task. Almost as daunting as reconciling the Tao Te Ching with modern industrial society. Maybe we have to accomplish the latter before we can accomplish the former.

One thought on “When a flood drowns half your cows: yin and yang of resilience

  1. Pingback: Trees and pasture: the Neshoba way to calm down the climate | Resilience

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