February 11, 2018. At 4:00 a.m. all of the phones and iPads in the house start blaring a loud and startling alarm!
The message: ‘TORNADO WARNING: Take shelter now…’
We didn’t have a tornado where we live and we didn’t get much sleep the rest of the night. What we did get, and lots of it, was rain. Some reports have said seven inches. Some reports measured three inches. My rain gauge broke during the last hard freeze and so I’m not sure…let’s just say a lot of rain. Inches of rain. Hard rain. Big fat drops of rain. You get the idea.
We live in the Northwest Panhandle of Florida. Our climate is considered subtropical. Hot and humid in the summer; mild in the winter. Even though, it has snowed twice this winter, comparatively speaking we have very mild winters. Last winter we only ‘dripped our pipes’ on two occasions. That’s what our northern neighbors would consider mild.
For several years now, I’ve taken pictures of the rain that we get throughout the year and each February, we have BIG rain events. Inches and inches of rain. This is the result, in part, of living in a subtropical climate. The seasons are beginning to change and the moisture pushing up out of the Gulf of Mexico collides at high altitude with cool air from the north. The end result is rain and sometimes thunderstorms and tornados.
One of the challenges we face is what to do with all this water. If we could bottle it up and use it in July or August when it’s extremely dry that would be great, but that would require an enormous bottle. One method that I’ve been spending a lot of time researching is addressing our ‘resource need’ of water infiltration. Can we improve our soil to the point that it can absorb and retain greater amounts of water? Researchers like Ray Archuleta believe that it’s not only possible, but can also be replicated. Soil health can be improved by planting diverse crop species, i.e. hairy vetch, clovers, rye grass, blue lupin and radishes and then grazing those crops on a schedule with diverse animal species such as cows, goats, pigs and chickens. These are all management practices that we adhere to on our farm.
As a result, we have begun planting winter crops that help with water infiltration. Crops like radishes. Lunch Radish has a long narrow root that tunnels deep into soil opening up cracks and crevices for water to flow. Rye grass is another winter crop that has deep tap roots and lots of root mass that breaks down slowly over time, improving the soils water handling capability. We’ve also discovered Hairy Vetch. Vetch is an amazing legume that fixes large amounts of nitrogen into the soil. That nitrogen is readily available to Bahia grass in April and May – research from several universities have shown that Vetch can fix 100 pounds or more of nitrogen per acre. If plants can supply other plants with nitrogen, do we need to purchase nitrogen? Planting diverse crop species and then grazing those crops with livestock saves on feed cost and fertilization cost. This process helps save time, money and improves the overall soil ecology.
We’ve got a long way to go on our mission to improve our soil, but we’re taking it step-by-step. Perhaps one day we’ll remember back and say, ‘do you remember when that pasture used to flood?’