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When Voles Attack

11 Aug

Summer harvest is just about done this year on the farm. And while the stress of that time of the year is winding up, the beginning of the next crop year is starting all over again.

When we sat down last fall to make decisions surrounding our acres, we had no idea how much dirt we were going to have to work this year. But we have come up against a pest that is forcing our hand and is changing our plans. Many of our tall fescue fields are slated to stay in the ground 7-10 years. This year however we are taking out a lot of acres before that end date due to one small, tiny, seemingly innocent little pest; the vole.

Auggie was out “mice stomping” while we were cutting the grass. I was all for it, that is until he asked how we could preserve one so he could keep it. (Puke)

We have voles every year. More often they are referred to as field mice. They are a nuisance, something that we try every year to control with bait. But this year, two to three weeks before harvest, their population exploded in our fields, and they began to quickly eat our crop.

You can see holes like this all over our fields.

We estimate that our worst hit fields lost about 30% in yield. Other farmers said they figured around 50-60% of their seed crop was destroyed by mouse damage. I’ve even heard that some fields weren’t even worth the diesel in the harvester to harvest the field. Which is heartbreaking.

So we have made the decision to take out some of our worst hit fields and use our last resort for control; habitat destruction. In other words we will be working up these fields, destroying the colonies where the mice live, and setting back their population. Also hoping that the population peaked and will go down to normal levels, saving the fields that we left in for harvest 2021.

As a farmers we often face new challenges from year to year. A few years ago we had army worms marching across our fields eating aces and acres of grass in a matter of days. Other years we have seen slugs decimate fields during a wet fall. All these challenges come unpredictably, so they can be difficult to prepare for. Mix that along with weather patterns that can make control options limited, it can be a challenge to protect your crops.

I haven’t heard of any earth shattering ways to kill vole populations that live and thrive underground. Beyond hiring a clowder (yeah I googled it….that’s a group of cats) of cats or a kettle (also googled) of hawks we don’t have a lot of options. We have the bait that we have always used and will be using that as much as we can on fields left in for next year’s harvest. But many times our hands are tied because our tools aren’t effective enough or work quickly enough when pressure is that high. Another good reason why farmers need “tools in their toolbox” when it comes to pest management.

I’m sure next year we will find ourselves with yet another challenge. Maybe it will be something like grass seed eating zombies. You know, something that has more proven science about how to kill them. Unless zombies eat voles….hmmmmm.

Almost Spring Farm Update

1 Mar

It’s been a bit political around my blog lately. But as it turns out we have been doing a lot of farming too. The weather has been cooperating with a good mix of rain and sun.

We got our first application of fertilizer out on the grass seed. We are getting ready to do some spring planting, and even got a little tall fescue in the ground. We have been out in the orchards pruning, removing dead or sick trees and also getting ready for the trees to start bud break.

As a mom and farmer it comes with its own challenges. Last week I was home most of the week while the sun shined with sick kiddos. These kids go stir crazy so we headed out for a small adventure. Fresh air and “Frowing Wocks” always helps everyone’s spirits!

This spring-ish weather makes us all start to get antsy to get outside and be done with “winter”. And soon enough it will be spring. As a farmer though one thing I’ve learned is patience; turns out no matter how hard you try, you can’t push Mother Nature.

Why do we grow grass seed in Oregon??

17 Jan

Here’s a good question, “Why are you growing grass seed on those acres and acres of fields when you could be growing food?”  Well with the recent closing of yet another food processor in this state, the answer to this question can get very complex.  So what I thought I would give you here is the answer to another question, “Why is grass seed an important crop to grow?” 

WHY DO WE GROW TURF TYPE GRASS SEED??
I should start by saying that this is the seed that you would plant for your lawn or is used on sports fields.  Our farm is about 60% turf type grass seed fields.  A mix of variety, but overall it’s either perennial ryegrass or tall fescue (both cool season grasses).  Theses fields stay in the ground anywhere from as little as two years and upwards of 15 years.  On average our fields are in the ground about 5 years.  Which means we are not tilling the soil those years, we plant in year one and we harvest every year the same plants that were originally planted until we have to take the field out.  We have a good climate here in Oregon to grow these grasses, we have an industry that has a long history of investment and research dedicated to making us as farmers able to more with less.  Efficiency on a farm has always been a big concern and when it comes to turf type grass seed that story is no different.

That’s a little background (questions can be left below), but the WHY is what we are trying to get to here.  And that is where the environment comes into the conversation, new technology, and even the simple idea of just getting outside, all play a role. 

Environmental:
If you think of any major environmental disaster, hazard spills, floods, landslides, earthquake, really any situation where there is bare soil, what is the first thing that is usually done to protect that soil from further damage?  They have to plant something, and grass is an excellent tool that can sprout to protect the soil it’s growing from on the surface and also put down roots that hold soil in place.  Roots that also can clean up the ground as a natural filtration system.  Grass in these situations is a tool used that will continue to work for them usually with little oversight and management so they can deal with the larger issues at hand.  It’s also a tool used in combating air and water pollution.  As an example of air specifically, (see carbon sequestration below), China has made an effort to increase plantings of grass to help with their air pollution problem.  The photo below is from India just this year, there are many places similar to this that can use the help from the smog.

Carbon Sequestration:
These plants that stay in year after year aren’t just sitting there doing nothing.  Like all plants they are busy year round taking in carbon.  Yes they have periods where they don’t sequester as much, but overall, grass seed crops are a carbon sequestering tool.  Think of all the good that these acres and acres of crop ground are doing for our atmosphere!  And that’s just above ground, the roots and plant material that is its own ecosystem below the ground is always working.  Our soil is our best resource and grass seed has shown to be a crop that continues the trend of soil health and fertility. 

Interesting fact: Just one acre (about the size of one football field) of tall fescue has been found to sequester 5.45 ton of carbon per year!!

New Technologies:
Our industry is always researching ways to continue to be relevant and solve problems.  One problem how to have grass in areas where water doesn’t fall from the sky with enough volume, or water sources are too expensive or being depleted.  I’m taking about drought resistance.  These varieties use less water, stay greener longer, need less inputs to look good and be healthy.  We are seeing this out in our fields as varieties are greener to the eye when we harvest, but often the seed is mature and ready to harvest.  Another example would be salt tolerant varieties of grass seed.  This serves the market not only of salty soil that’s naturally occurring, but also for roadsides where salt is used to protect motorists in the winter.  That salt can create an issue on roadsides where you need stability, this fits that niche.  Have a soil issue, have a weather issue, let’s see if grass seed can be developed to solve those problems!

Getting Outside, Being Active:
This might seem like such an obvious piece of the puzzle, but I truly believe that grass helps kids (and adults) get outside.  This grass is on sports fields, it’s out your back door, it’s in parks where you can run with your pets.  It’s in all those places that naturally reduce stress and encourage movement.  I think that as a society, this is a big part of continuing down a path of mental and physical health.  Not to mention how much cooler the ground is where there is grass growing, especially in the summer. 

Interesting Fact: It’s been shown that the temperature of ground covered with grass can be 30 degrees cooler than concrete!!

Can you imagine if all around us was just concrete and rocks?  I don’t see that as a place I’d hang out if it was 100 degrees, even if it was in the shade! And what about artificial turf?  Seems like an easy replacement right?  But did you know…..

Interesting Fact: Artificial sports turf field has a budget of $2 million over the life of 20 years, while a nicely cared for natural grass field still budgets in at under $1 million!

You know what all that maintenance and money goes to?  Rubber, labor, and zero carbon sequestration.

Side note: My own personal favorite natural grass turf field….Go Packers!

So while you’re driving around Oregon thinking how irresponsible this is to have all this grass seed growing all around us, think about the end product and markets.  Think about how important that above ground protection and coverage is, think about the carbon sequestration, think about how fun it is to go play catch in your back yard!  And that is where you will find many of the answers as to why we grow turf type grass seed here in Oregon.  Clearly this is just a snapshot of some interesting examples, but as always if you have questions or comments please feel free to type them below!

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