Livestock producers should have a drought management plan in place prior to pasture turnout in case drought persists into the growing season this year, North Dakota State University Extension Service livestock and rangeland specialists say.
Producers need to have a good idea how to assess available forage, feed and water supplies to determine if they need to reduce their stocking rates or modify grazing plans before they turn their cattle out onto pasture this spring, according to beef cattle specialist Carl Dahlen. The stocking rate is the number of specific kinds of animals grazing a unit of land for a specified time.
Developing a plan early is important because 80 percent of the grass growth on rangeland is dictated by May and June precipitation. Drought conditions during that time will reduce the amount of grass available on pasture and rangeland for the duration of the grazing season, rangeland management specialist Kevin Sedivec says.
If producers don’t reduce the stocking rate to compensate for the loss of grass, overgrazing can result. Overgrazing affects the entire rangeland plant community, leading to a loss of plant species diversity and biomass, soil erosion, weed growth and a reduction in the soil’s ability to hold water, livestock environmental stewardship specialist Miranda Meehan explains. Drought conditions also can lead to increased risk of toxicity from selenium and nitrates in plants.
“It takes a lot longer for the entire ecosystem (plants, soils, water, etc.) to recover if you don’t prepare and take active steps to change management in response to drought,” she says.
She advises producers to use the National Drought Mitigation Center’s U.S. Drought Monitor to keep track of the conditions.
“Selective culling is a quick way to reduce the stocking rate,” Sedivec says.
It also could be profitable because cattle prices are high.
“It’s a seller’s market right now,” he notes.
Culling targets include cows that are old, have a poor disposition or physical structure, or had a difficult time giving birth this spring and have a low chance of rebreeding.
“The importance of records is magnified in times when tough culling decisions need to be made,” Dahlen says. “Good calving and production records can help producers pinpoint cows that could be culled.”
Locating sources of and feeding alternative feeds is another way to reduce the risk of overgrazing.
In cases when surplus wet distillers grains, a byproduct of ethanol production, are available as a result of dryer shutdown or reduced railcar availability, producers may have the opportunity to purchase those grains in early to midsummer at a relatively low cost, Dahlen says. The drawback is that the distillers grains are a wet product, but producers can use storage methods to preserve the nutrient quality until the feed is needed.
Producers also should evaluate hay and stockpiled forage remaining from last year that could be used to delay pasture turnout this year or supplement pasture grass later in the grazing season, Meehan says.
Other options the specialists suggest producers consider if warranted include weaning calves early, providing cattle with creep feed or feed supplements, and feeding cattle in drylots. Weaning early eliminates the cows’ energy demand for milk production, which may result in reduced intake of pasture grasses and improvements in body condition once the calves are removed, Dahlen says.
For more information on dealing with drought, contact the local county Extension office or visit NDSU Extension’s “Ranchers Guide to Grassland Management IV.”
–NDSU Extension Service