Ample moisture affords management opportunity
Water, water everywhere! This spring has provided an exceptional start to the growing season. As a reminder: in the Northern Great Plains, where cool-season vegetation is the predominant feature of rangelands, total production for the season is strongly related to precipitation occurring during April, May and June.
After long periods of below normal rainfall, most readers of the Tri-State Livestock News are enjoying the second year of normal or above moisture. Frequent rains may become an obstacle for annual crop production, but are largely beneficial for perennial grasslands.
Advisors are fond of reminding grassland managers of the importance of contingency which can be executed in a timely fashion to minimize damage to production, profits and natural resources. I’ve spent time on that “bandwagon” myself! The need to anticipate potential threats remains, even in years of favorable growing conditions. This year’s threat of grasshopper damage and the ever-present possibility of hail damage necessitate that livestock producers remain alert to conditions and prepared to execute alternative plans.
However, this year’s ample moisture may present conditions that excellent managers will utilize to their advantage and for the benefit of vegetation. Three management alternatives come to mind that might provide “positive contingencies” with careful planning:
1. Abundant forage provides the opportunity to defer pastures that might need to be grazed ordinarily.
2. Surface water supplies might allow manipulation of grazing distribution not generally possible.
3. Careful weed control might enhance long-term pasture productivity.
Defoliation that results from grazing is a normal and essential component of grassland management. However, grazing is one stress that, when compounded with other stressors such as drought, can negatively impact production if not accounted for. Deferring grazing for an entire year provides the greatest opportunity for rangeland plants to recover from accumulated stress. This is particularly important in recovery from drought. Carefully accounting for feed available from abundant rainfall may provide the opportunity to completely rest a pasture that in most years would be part of the standard rotation. If deferring for the entire year is not possible, avoiding grazing for the growing season also provides substantial benefit.
While hay supplies should be abundant, and perhaps less costly this year, attempting to extend grazing later in the fall and winter may provide a great opportunity to lower feed costs. Setting aside a pasture for fall or winter grazing provides the benefit of growing season deferment and extended duration of grazing. Hayfields which are normally baled and bales removed and stored might be candidates for more “intermediate harvest” this year. Producers have successfully used windrow grazing and bale grazing to require livestock to participate in harvesting and reduce the cost of winter feeding.
Abundant moisture has restored surface water supplies in many pastures where they have been absent for many years. Favorable hydrological conditions have filled ponds and dams, restored flow in small streams and even activated seeps and springs. If water is now available in areas of pastures that have been underutilized for several years, this may present an opportunity to modify distribution of grazing and benefit areas of pastures that have been overused during the drought. Careful planning will be needed to identify water sources and anticipate the duration of adequate supply of drinking water for livestock. Either temporary fencing or herding might be employed to force utilization of areas of pastures that have not been used recently.
Another opportunity presented by ample moisture is for concerted weed control. Favorable growing conditions will amplify the competitive ability of desirable plants. In addition, the risk of “collateral damage” to feed supplies is minimized when growth of vegetation is abundant. Particularly troublesome weeds that are best controlled with nonselective herbicides such as glyphosate, may be best accomplished when growing conditions are most favorable for desirable plants. Combining herbicide application during the growing season with deferment from grazing may create the best conditions to reduce weeds and promote growth of the pasture; particularly in coming years.
Green is a very restful color and I’ve enjoyed this spring’s landscape display. Take the opportunity for a restful gaze and respond creatively to the unique opportunities a favorable growing season will present.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News