How ranchers manage their grazing resources during a drought will effect how quickly that forage will bounce back for future use, according to a University of Nebraska grazing specialist. Jerry Volesky spoke about grazing and livestock considerations during and after drought, during a ‘Managing Drought Risk on the Ranch’ workshop in Powell, WY.
“Nationwide, cow numbers are down,” Volesky told the ranchers. “But, the drought has lead us to a situation where the value of forage has never been higher. We need to be on top of our game when it comes to managing that forage. We need to develop a strategy to manage our feed resources, whether it is purchased or produced,” he said.
“A combination of drought and grazing stress will reduce herbage production potential in the subsequent years,” Volesky explained. Overgrazing occurs when the level and date of grazing is beyond when preferred key plant species can not recover, before pastures are grazed in the subsequent year.
Developing a viable drought plan is important, the range specialist continued. Producers should communicate with their partners, and together develop a realistic drought plan. They should have a good understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats during a drought, and how all those factors affect their ranch. The plan they develop should include the vision and objectives of the operation.
The first step is to inventory the ranch resources and records, Volesky said. From that information, develop a monitoring schedule, including critical dates for making decisions. Look at grazing records, individual pasture records, and precipitation records. “If you live more than 10 miles away from a precipitation reporting center, you are too far away. You need to accurately monitor how much precipitation you receive on your ranch,” he said. “Precipitation can be variable, depending upon where you live.” Also include a plan for managing the ranch before, during and after drought, and continually review and revise the plan once it is in place.
In this area, Volesky said, April and May are the key periods of production growth, with growth tapering off beyond that period. “As the animals are getting bigger, whether it is a yearling, or a cow with a growing calf, the demand for grass goes up as the season progresses,” he explained. Depending upon what type of grasses are on the ranch, 65 percent of the production potential will be determined in April and May, 25 percent in June through August, and 10 percent in September through October.
In the Sandhills, where Volesky works with several producers and conducts his research, most ranches have a combination of warm and cool season grasses. “Typically, about 70 percent of their production is warm season, and 30 percent is cool season,” he explained. “For us, May, June, and July precipitation is critical to the amount of production we will have.”
Stocking rate is based on the amount of forage available on a piece of grazing land. Typically, 50 percent of the year’s production occurs by June 15. “We can usually measure peak production or total production by Aug 15,” Volesky added.
To properly manage grazing land, Volesky told producers to give key species in a pasture an opportunity to recover before the next grazing season. “If the pasture is overgrazed, it will be very hard for those species to regrow during the rapid growth phase,” he said. To encourage desirable plants like Prairie sandreed to increase in a pasture, it could be grazed from late June to early July, but allowed to rest during the rapid growth period.
Volesky said producers may want to graze pastures with a large number of undesirable plants, like needle and thread grass, heavier in May during its rapid growth period. “Eventually, that species will begin to decline in production, and allow more desirable plant species an opportunity to compete,” he said.
By using a combination of scheduled grazing, proper stocking rates, and rotating each pasture through a rest period, producers can improve their grazing land. “Focus on vegetative reproduction,” Volesky said. “If we get precipitation this winter going into spring, things may start to look pretty good. But, I would encourage you to look more closely at exactly what’s going on out there, and what’s happening to those grasses. Evaluate how much of those grasses are actually palatable for livestock.”
Volesky said he would encourage producers to delay turnout next spring to give the grasses a chance to recover from the drought, unless they have a big selection of cheatgrass. “Then, I would put cattle out there as soon as I could, and make some use of it before it gets too mature,” he said.
“Producers also need to monitor grazing to give the desirable plants an opportunity to grow during the rapid growth period,” he continued. “Usually, that is during the month of May and some of June. But, keep an eye on weed growth, too,” he mentioned.
Volesky recommends using some type of rotational system. “You can keep it simple. In the Sandhills, many producers have five to six pastures per unit that are managed together. They graze each pasture once per season, and rotate the time each pasture is grazed the next year so the pastures aren’t overgrazed and get rest,” he explained.