Post-drought grazing management starts now

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Jul 25, 2005
by WLJ

— Forage problems loom.
With drought receding across much of the west, producers are being urged to start reviewing management strategies in an effort to minimize losses from problems not seen since the onset of the drought. It is also the time to take steps to plan for future low water years by preparing a drought management plan. When reviewing operating procedures, it is important to look at the big picture and make decisions that will place the ranch on a solid footing for future low water seasons, rangeland specialists said.
Sources noted that building herd size slowly and maintaining proper stocking rates may be the most important step in drought recovery.
“Keep in mind the forage base has been stressed; rebuild slowly and don’t put pressure on too fast,” said Doug Powell, rangeland management specialist for the Society for Range Management. “Remember, that’s the way it happens in nature. It takes several seasons for wild ungulates to repopulate following a drought.”
Powell also suggested allowing a rest period for water sources that have been used heavily during dry years. “Wells or springs should be closed off and alternate sources such as refilled reservoirs and ponds should be utilized.”
Potential herd health concerns were cited as a reason to closely monitor animals at the end of a drought. Although diseases like grass tetany, caused by a lack of available magnesium in forage and more prevalent in wet years, have not been a widespread concern this season, producers should be aware they could become a problem, particularly in older lactating cows.
When a drought breaks, it is common for it to end with a period of above average precipitation, Powell said. Ground that has become barren due to drought or overgrazing is susceptible to increased surface runoff and soil loss, which can lengthen recovery time. To reduce runoff damage, range scientists suggest replanting with perennial grasses because they have deeper root systems and higher drought tolerance. This measure will help soil absorb and hold water much more effectively.
Grasses that recover quickly from drought stress will also prevent noxious weed infestations in areas where grasses are weak and can’t compete with fast growing weeds. Resting grasslands with slow growing forage and replanting bare areas with native grasses conducive to water retention will provide better drought resistance in future dry seasons.
Producers need to take a good look at their pasture to determine the vigor of forage before making long term decisions. “Desirable grasses have grown better than average, but total productivity has been reduced,” said Jerry Voleski, range and forage specialist with the University of Nebraska. “Good rains throughout June have helped, but some rain in July would really maximize production.”
Voleski also noted the importance of a good rotational grazing plan and stressed varying the grazing season for each pasture so animals can better utilize both warm and cool season grasses.
Pairing the nutritional requirements of animals with the availability of range forage can also increase a producer’s ability to weather a drought situation. Range production can vary greatly over the course of the year and it is in a rancher’s best interest to match the nutrient needs of the herd to the production of forage. Producers should evaluate the herd’s cyclical nutritional needs to ensure the production cycle is synchronized with the growth cycle of the available pasture.
The best time to prepare a drought management plan and make necessary changes is while the grass is green. Taking time to design a plan now, in preparation for the future, will ensure a greater likelihood for long-term success, according to both Voleski and Powell . — John Robinson, WLJ Associate Editor

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