Factors to consider for re-stocking after storm
January 27, 2014
To suggest that there was or is anything "good" about the October blizzard is likely to be received with resentment or bitterness by those most devastated. I therefore make my comments with considerable reservation, but hope they might be helpful as the renewal of growth that spring promises is anticipated.
Fall moisture was abundant. In some areas, resulting soil moisture was exceptional. While growing season precipitation is unknown, moisture conditions at the beginning of the growing season should be very favorable. A conspicuous item in recent livestock news has been the expansion of global beef demand. Indications that prices will be attractive in the near term seem quite reliable and extended forecasts also reflect a positive outlook. Information at hand therefore suggests that plans for the coming growing season can be developed with a positive perspective for pasture supplies and livestock sale receipts.
Change in the composition of the cowherd can be expected nationwide if the beef industry embarks on and sustains expansion. In the Tri-State region, the rate at which those changes take place may be considerably more accelerated as re-stocking accompanies expansion. I'm certainly not an animal geneticist, but it's clear that decisions about the make-up of replacement animals, either those retained or those purchased, will have consequences for individual operations and for the industry for years to come.
Attention should certainly be paid to genetics and phenotypic soundness but another aspect that may be less obvious is what might be classified as "grazing experience." Both research and animal husbandry experience indicate that any animal's success in a pasture environment includes its decisions about where and what to graze. Those decisions are strongly influenced in early development by modeling the choices of the dam. Herd mates can also influence grazing patterns. Although it may be difficult to quantify as precisely as breeding values, there is value in selecting replacement animals that are "experienced" rather than "naïve." All other things being equal, animals familiar with the topography and plants of your area may be preferred to those with less local origin.
Anticipating a period of recovery and re-stocking also provide the opportunity to make intentional decisions about the composition of the herd in terms of class of livestock. Livestock operations in the Northern Plains are dominated by cow/calf enterprises. Decisions, either intentional or "by default," about the make-up of the grazing herd impact the flexibility of responses to changes in availability of vegetation. Choosing to include classes of livestock that are more "liquid" as part of the grazing herd enhances the opportunities to respond rapidly to changes in forage availability that are certain in our region. Drought, fire, flood and blizzards can rapidly change the outlook for forage supply. Favorable rainfall can also rapidly increase availability of grazing. Including stock that can be rapidly moved such as yearling steers, replacement heifers, cull cows or stock under contract grazing, allows timely response to changes in feed supply. Take advantage of the opportunity to consider enterprises other than "business as usual" as re-stocking/expansion decisions are made.
Planning decisions about grazing plans can be equally influential on the future success of grazing based operations. Even if no changes are made on the "animal side" being intentional about grazing plans can certainly be beneficial. If there are ultimately opportunities to expand animal numbers, that can only be accomplished in the long term if the pasture resources are managed appropriately. If grazing plans and decisions about adapting plans had to be based on a single principle, I'd suggest that one of the most important would be extending the recovery time for as many plants as possible. Several management factors can contribute to extended recovery time. More pastures and/or fewer herds can increase the duration during which any given pasture is not occupied. Increasing pasture number and or reducing herd numbers will be accompanied by higher stock density. Improved distribution and improved harvest efficiency will contribute to greater operation-wide carrying capacity.
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Managing for less bare ground (which suggests leaving greater post-grazing residue) will, over time, increase the protection of the land surface. A soil surface protected by growing plants and litter enhances infiltration and reduces run-off. Increased effectiveness of precipitation with increase soil moisture and extend the length of time plants can recover under favorable conditions.
Storm recovery has been accompanied by considerable soul-searching. I continue to grieve with those whose losses were so great! Perhaps the "openings" created, over the course of time, provide opportunities that can one day be seen as beneficial after reflection.