With all the rain we've been getting I know it's hard to think back to those drier times this year, but for Oregon we've had some unusual weather. A drier than normal spring and late fall rains that didn't start until November have had a significant impact on grass seed farming and shepherding here in the Willamette Valley.
In the last post I filled you all in on a bit more about the grass seed industry. What we grow, why we grow it and what its used for. Now on to how this years weather (we'll save the issue of tariffs for a whole other day and some cocktails) has impacted grass. Let me be clear, I am not a grass seed farmer, my husband is, his family is, and we are surrounded by them. I am new to the agriculrture world, a part of the team and I know just enough about grass seed growing to be dangerous, but I have consulted my experts. Here is what I can tell you from my perspetive, my pasture never grew. This is the one of the two times of year we flourish in fresh grass. The pasture that usually turns brown during the summer, turns a luscious green once the fall rains start. The grass grows again and the pastures generally have several inches going into the winter. This is the time of year that I would generally only have to hay the sheep and alpacas as a treat vs. for sustenance. So even with my small flock we have been effected and are having to put more money out to keep the animals fed.
Now multiply that exponentially for commercial shepherds (and other livestock growers). The grass didn't grow which means there is not the same amount of feed for the sheep. In turn this means there are less sheep because having to feed large flocks of sheep hay thru the entire winter is a huge financial burden. For those that keep breeding ewes and their lambs, there is a scramble to find fresh grass to put them on, for this is the time of year that grass seed farmers make their fields available for grazing sheep. But as you may now be able to figure out, the grass seed fields didn't not grow as they normally should, so they are not readily available for sheep.
So now to the grass seed farms. After summer harvest, annual fields are turned and replanted for next years harvest. Grass needs rain, sun and mild temperatures to grow. Generally in Oregon the rain starts in September and voila, grass starts to grow. But not this year. We waited, and waited, and while we all personally enjoyed the sunny mild weather, those freshly planted grass seeds were less than thrilled.
Luckily the rains did came, but there were also some freezing temperatures mingled into the mix. So what that means is that while grass sprouts finally started to come up with the rains, the freezing temperatures slowed growth way down. It's just like when you walk outside into that unexpected cold and then stop and shiver, then trudge on. The grass is growing, but at a significantly slower pace. Luckily we have had a lot of mild temperatures which has allowed for some extra growth time.
So what happens if the grass doesn't grow tall enough? A single planted grass seed sprouts out of the ground into a single blade. This single blade then starts to tiller as it grows, meaning other blades start to grow out of that one blade. In a dry year such as this, the grass was growing at a much slower rate and in turn tillering at a much slower rate. A single blade becomes much more susceptible to damage from birds and insects. A great example is slugs. If the grass does not grow at a steady pace it allows slugs to climb up those short blades and chomp. If they chomp enough, no more grass blade which of course means no growth and no seed. The longer the blades and the more tillering, the hardier the grass is and the less damage that can be caused.
The moral of the story is, we need rain in Oregon and ideally the farmers of this region need it to come at its normal times. So next time we all complain about the rain, just think, "well hey, at least the crops are growing!!!"
Well that's enough about grass seed farming for today! Be back soon and Happy New Year!!!
I am Kim Biegler, the owner and operator of Ewethful Fiber Farm & Mill. I create hand spinning fibers from locally sourced wool and teach others online how to hand spin their own yarn.