I hope that we are coming to the end of an extended period of remarkable weather here at The Farm School, and the experience has got me thinking a lot about adapting our farm to changing weather patterns and extremes. We’ve had over fifteen inches of rain since the second week of July, and I think the thermometer stayed over seventy degrees for just about that whole stretch. The humidity has been constant and quite high, giving the farm a rain forest feeling. This part of the country usually sees somewhere between three and four inches of rain per month, so this has been a departure from what we expect and what we are prepared for.
Though this wet weather has swamped a good portion of our vegetable acreage, softened fields up to the point where we could not go on them with the tractors, and saturated several types of crops, my focus has been on the effect on our livestock. For them, the rain has meant never having a dry place to lie down, constantly wet hoofs, an explosion in the population of pasture parasites in their environment, wet feed, mud all around them and on their legs and bellies, and water in the pastures and the roads that they use to move around the farm. Some of these issues are more nuisance that problem, and many will resolves themselves once the rain stops, the sun comes out, and the water soaks into the soil. Other issues have had a much more significant impact, with a real effect on the health and performance of our livestock.
We lost our third sheep in a month Tuesday of last week, and decided that it was time to get the veterinarian out for a postmortem in the hopes of determining the trouble. Losing a single sheep is pretty normal, losing a second might just be a coincidence, but losing the third shows us that we probably have a real problem on our hands. We did the postmortem on Tuesday afternoon, and although there was nothing visibly wrong with the ewe, she was thinner than we’d like. The vet took a fecal sample from the ewe, and another sample collected from various areas in the sheep yard, and tested them for parasite load back at his office. The test revealed a very high level of parasite eggs in the general yard sample, and an even higher level from the sample taken from the dead ewe. We had wormed the sheep Tuesday morning in anticipation of the high parasite finding, and we plan to worm them again next week with a different medication. The warm wet weather has created and maintained a perfect environment for the parasites resident in our pastures, with grass that never dries and warm temperatures allowing the tiny worms to remain on the grass stems indefinitely. These parasites are water dependent, moving up and down the leaves of pasture grasses as dew develops over night and dries in the sun. The sheep pick them up as they brush their noses through the grass, and constantly wet grass means that they are constantly picking up parasites.
The question we now face is how to adapt our systems, infrastructure and practices to
keep our livestock comfortable and healthy in the face of a changing weather landscape. Specific ideas on my mind include having a place for every animal to get out of the wet, to have a place for everyone to lie down in a dry spot, improving our farm roads so they drain and remain passable despite the rain, developing and installing nice sheep corral system so that we can catch and worm our sheep more quickly and easily, and will therefore do it more frequently. I’d also like to see us develop a high-ground area that we could move our cows to in extremely wet conditions to get them off of the pastures to a comfortable place with feed and water access. There are many other ways that we could enhance our farm landscape to be resilient in extreme weather, and I’m sure that we’ll be looking at all of them in the coming months and years.