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Fall Senescence

Transitions, cycles of transitions punctuate the calendar of work and life here on the ranch. They are the familiar notes that anchor our daily labor to the rhythm of the prairie’s seasonal changes in mood and appearance. When we make our schedule for each day, each week, each month of the year, it is always an attempt to strike a balance: a balance of the logistical needs of the cattle operations we control with the ecological needs of a natural system we can only hope to understand, but never control. Just as we must balance and harmonize the life cycle of our cattle with the reproductive cycle of our grass.

Here at the Chico, we are now on the cusp of one of the great transitions to occur each year on the shortgrass prairie: the shift from the growing season to the dormant season, when life becomes subdued by the threat of winter. This recurring transition to dormancy is how grasses have learned to cope with the climatic stresses of fall and winter on the prairie–stress in the form of drought as the monsoon season fades, less light as the days shorten, and, of course, the cold. Rather than waste the precious energy they have produced over the spring and summer trying to grow when it is dark, dry, and cold, the grasses senesce: the nutrients in their once-green leaves and stems begin their obligatory migration down below the soil surface, into the root system, where valuable proteins and carbohydrates will be stored to keep the plant alive through the winter, reserving just enough energy to send up a few green leaves when the next spring’s sun warms the soil.

Our work schedule slows down too, just as the metabolism of the plants do. In the dormant season the pasture moves are less frequent, the bikes get a little harder to start each morning, and one by one, the trucks grumble their way into the shop for some overdue maintenance.

For the grass, senescence means a change in color, a shift in hue from deep greens and yellows to pale brown, tan, beige and grey. For the cattle, senescence means a change in diet–texture and taste, and which grasses they choose to eat when. For us humans, senescence means a chance to re-evaluate, to reflect, and to recalibrate our balancing act.

In this period of transition, we draw up a new grazing plan for the dormant season, now knowing how much grass we have to get through the winter. We wean our cows, because a dry cow stripped of her calf has a much lower nutritional demand than a lactating cow. This way we alter the nutritional requirements of our herds to match the shift in nutrients that our pastures have to offer. We re-tune the balance.

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