Planning for Drought:
Strategies to Help Pastures Thrive
Prolonged drought conditions and a forecast for warm, dry weather in the Great Plains have livestock producers concerned about the upcoming grazing season and beyond. Timely management strategies can help pastures and livestock weather the lack of moisture.
Kevin Sedivec, Extension Rangeland Specialist North Dakota State University Extension and interim director of the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center near Streeter, North Dakota, says that careful management now can help pastures to be more resilient.
“We have some delay of spring growth because of the lack of rain last fall; with most grasses expiring a loss of fall tillers” he said. “If producers have enough hay to feed for a few more weeks and can delay their turnout until the end of May to give the grass a chance to get a head start that can be very beneficial. Anything helps; here at the station we’re delaying turnout by one week, not two. We have some data from Minnesota that shows that for every day you graze in early May you lose three days of grazing in the fall. If you can’t delay your turnout, then going into a pasture that was grazed the least last fall will be your best option.”
Sedivec said that a key factor to keep in mind when making management decisions is that eighty percent of all grass growth happens in May and June.
“If there’s no rain in May and June we know we’re in trouble,” he said. “This year, we know already at May 1 that we need to make some careful decisions. Based on a twenty-five year study of grass production in relation to precipitation, we know that even if we get normal precipitation in May and June this year we will see a 20-25 percent loss in forage produced. Due to the current extremely dry conditions, we figure that we would need at least 150% of our normal precipitation in May and June to put us at normal production levels. Based on the data the odds are very low, we have a 5-7% chance of that happening.”
A good culling strategy is a normal part of ranch management, but it’s even more critical during times of drought.
“Every cow that lost her calf at the station is already gone,” Sedivec said. “Based on ultrasound data, we already sold all of our later calvers as well. Ornery cows, cows with bad udders or bad feet can also go on the “to sell list”. Don’t sell your good stock, but we know already that we’re way below average precipitation, so decide what your best options for culling are. Maybe this year some of the replacement heifers need to go to town.”
Dan Rasmussen, a former board member of the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition (SDGC) who ranches with his family west of White River, South Dakota, concurs.
“Drought can be an opportunity to improve your cow herd,” he said. “Ranchers can sell yearlings or cull older cows. A drought plan is crucial for long term ranch management, and we talk about how to develop one at our grazing schools. Each ranch is different and each year is different, but it’s based on figuring out how many and which cattle need to be sold or moved off of pastures if there’s a lack of precipitation by certain dates. For example, yearlings might need to be sold if there’s no rain by May 15; older cows if there’s no rain by June 1. But each ranch is unique so your drought plan needs to fit your individual situation.”
Both Sedivec and Rasmussen said that long term grass management is vital to weathering drought spells.
“I tell ranchers that it’s not the end of the world to overgraze a pasture once if you let it recover the next year,” Sedivec said. “Grazing management is key to resilient pastures. Rest, rotation and recovery are vital to range plant health. I like to suggest that producers try to rest one pasture every year in the western Dakotas and Montana. I know some who rest pastures for two years before grazing again, but I think that is an extreme. Pastures that are grazed hard every year will probably see a fifty percent loss of biomass production in a drought year.”
“From a management standpoint, we’re either preparing for a drought or in one in this area,” Rasmussen said. “Daily grazing and soil management strategies are key to preparing for times of drought. The difference between healthy pastures and healthy soil is kind of like the difference between a sponge and a brick. Healthy soil with plenty of residue and organic matter is like a sponge; it soaks up rain, handles stress better and recovers faster. Overgrazed pastures that are not managed for soil health are more like a brick; they are harder and rain is more likely to run off.”
The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers grazing management planning assistance along with a drought calculation tool to help ranchers plan stocking rates and range management. Producers can reach out to their local office or check out the Drought Tool here: Range & Pasture | NRCS South Dakota (usda.gov)
Mitch Faulkner, Area Rangeland Management Specialist with USDA-NRCS at Belle Fourche, SD, says that the tool is a simple three click process using an Excel file, and it can be tailored to individual locations across South Dakota. It also offers a ‘what if’ scenario calculation that producers can use over the winter months to get an idea of what to expect the following year.
“In this semi-arid climate, we are very dependent on timing of precipitation,” Faulkner said. “The drought tool compares current recorded precipitation with normal averages and computes an estimated percentage of normal production. Keep in mind that a good stocking rate might be even lower than the expected production because it’s good to try to keep some cover in the pasture. Seeing the numbers can really make the tough decisions easier.”
Short term strategies include early weaning, selling yearlings earlier in the summer, and supplemental feeding.
“If the creep feed or supplement is a protein supplement, you actually increase intake as the rumen can do a better job of converting high fiber feeds,” Sedivec said. “If it is an energy-based supplement (like grass, alfalfa, soy hulls) you would reduce intake of pasture forages and stretch the pasture longer. Early weaning is a better option than creep feeding, as early weaning does reduce intake of the cow and eliminate calf eating from pasture.”
For the short term, and for the long term, ranchers and livestock producers need to keep drought planning on the table.
“Ranchers need to have drought strategies on board all the time as part of long-term grass management,” Sedivec said.
“We need to look at drought as part of our management planning, not wait for it,” Rasmussen said.
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