Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Soils and farming

Question from email: 

I recently ran across your blog (which is much appreciated!) while doing research on starting up a farm.

I've got my eyes on some property up in north Snohomish County. Its drainage is similar to that of your property (if I've got you located correctly- east of Cherry Ave. along Hwy 2?), identified as poor: silty clay soil (over 70% of it); from what the soil survey maps tell me I wouldn't be able to run drainage tile.

I'd had my heart on running cattle as the front-end of a grazer-follower operation, but am concerned that the land wouldn't support larger animals.

How does your land hold up to your cattle (four head?) and sheep? I guess the question would also apply with regards to your pigs: I'd have some wooded area to run pigs, lots of rooting; most, however, is wet.

To answer your question there's the farming answer, and then the regulation answer. 

Regulation answer:
The Washington state department of ecology has taken the position that farm land that has not been farmed for 5 or more years and at some point in the geologic past might have been a wetland, and during that 5 year period has wetland plants or conditions appear, is now wetland.  Once they deem your land wetland there is no easy path back to farmland for you.  In my case their first proposal was to give them half (50%) of my land to "mitigate" my grazing of animals and use of wood chips on my property.  I'm in discussion with them and have a court date in October to argue my case in front of the pollution control hearings board, but the best opinions I've been able to get is that I'm going to lose that argument.   So if you're looking at land, even farm land, and it could be deemed wetland, look out.

I'd be certain that it is currently farmed and does not contain wetland plants or indicators.   If it does, and you come to the attention of the department of ecology (in my case they wrote the complaints that they later investigated) you stand the very real possibility that a large percentage of your land will be taken from you in the form of a Natural Growth Protection Area (NGPA), and you will be required to fence it and prevent any use of it forever.  You still get to pay taxes on it, however.  Nice of them. 

I cannot recommend that you buy crossbow to eliminate bushy wetland plants or roundup to eliminate grassy wetland plants and 10-20lbs per acre of good pasture mix tolerant for wet soils, and rent a tractor to apply and till and level and plant that grass seed. 

Farming answer: 
In the river bottoms around here, and in the tidal areas, and diked tidal areas, you'll find a mucky soil interspersed with peat, usually in stripes.  It's very fertile; usually about 20% organic material, and will tend to be acidic.  to grow stuff like row crops you'll have to add lime and not much else. 

In the areas where it's close to the ocean (puget sound) you'll usually find higher levels of sulfur and trace elements, from the seawater that's probably underneath the soil.  This isn't usually a problem, but if you're going to do something other than grazing nothing beats a soil test.  In my case the soil test called for 4 tons of lime per acre to grow corn.

With respect to grazing and rooting pressure from my animals, the reed canary grass that the property is covered in was originally brought in to provide forage and control erosion, and is quite tolerant of pretty heavy use.  It also doesn't mind being covered with water during the wet season, so poor drainage hasn't been a problem.  you'll probably find that the property you're looking at has this same grass.  When it gets older and more stemmy the livestock don't like it as much, so if they're not grazing it down I'll mow it from time to time to prevent it from going to seed head and control weeks.  Thistles are a particular problem on my land. 

The hooves of the cows and pigs do cut the sod, and if it's not growing  you'll have to make a sacrifice paddock to save the turf for the growing season.  I pull the animals off the pasture and put them into a prepared pen from about first frost to mid April.  that gives the   grass enough time to grow to knee length and then I'll rotate the animals around on it. 

With wet pasture you do have to look at your stocks feet more, and watch your parasite load.  the wet grass holds snails and stuff that nematodes (round worms) live in, and that can cause your animals to not gain as fast, so worming is sometimes necessary. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post Bruce! I love the advice you are not giving. DOE doesn't seem to realize that the land around us is always changing. (ox bow lakes?? hello??) Trying to stop it's change is like trying to keep the tide from flushing out the hood canal twice a day.. Like the army core of engineers being surprised that the levies failed around New Orleans.
Our farm is on a ridge above the Stilly Valley and we still have moisture issues. Even with the few goats we have, I have them on a sacrifice area for the winter.