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Proper timing of pasture turnout critical for drought recovery

By Staff | Mar 23, 2018

North Dakota experienced widespread drought in 2017, with over 99 percent of the state experience some type of drought condition during the growing season. This was the worst drought the state had seen since 2006. In some areas, conditions were worse than those experienced during the 1988 drought. Currently, approximately 97 percent of the state is drier than normal. According to NDSU state climatologist, Adnan Akyuz current conditions indicate that the drought could extend into 2018.

As a result of the decreased forage production during last year’s drought many of our pastures received excess grazing pressure. According to weekly surveys conducted by NDSU Extension Agents many pastures in drought impacted areas received some level of overgrazing. 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. These issues have the potential to result in long term detrimental effects on overgrazed pastures, but a few key management steps this grazing season can help pastures recover.

Drought-stressed pastures, especially pastures stressed during the fall of 2017, should receive special care this spring to aid in drought recovery. It is critical that these pastures are given adequate time to recover. Grazing too early in the spring can result in decreased total forage production for the entire grazing season.

Grazing before grasses plants reach the appropriate stage of growth for grazing readiness causes a reduction in herbage production, which can reduce the recommended stocking rate and/or animal performance. Greadiness for most domesticated pasture is at the three-leaf stage, whereas grazing readiness for most native range grasses is the 3-leaf stage.

In North Dakota recommended time to begin grazing native range is mid to late May, which coincides with grazing readiness in most cool-season native range grasses. Domesticated grass pastures, such as crested wheatgrass and smooth brome, reach grazing readiness two to four weeks earlier than native range, permitting grazing in late April to early May. However, a pilot project conducted by NDSU Extension in 2017 found the exact dates varied widely across the state, reinforcing the importance of making decisions based on monitoring data and not calendar dates. Extension agents in 21 counties will be monitoring grazing readiness this spring. This year we may see a delay in grazing readiness in areas impacted by the 2017 drought, especially in pastures that were overgrazed and did not receive adequate time to recover.

Some strategies to avoid grazing native range prior to grazing readiness include:

* Graze domesticated grass pastures in May

* Graze and provide supplemental forage on domesticated pasture or hayland.

* Utilize winter annuals that were established last fall for early spring grazing or hay.

* Continue drylot feeding in May.

It is important to allow adequate recovery to native pastures. For our native grasses, grazing before grass has reached the 3.5 leaf stage can result in a loss of 45 to 60 percent of the potential forage production potential. This ultimately leads a reduction in the recommended stocking rate and lowered animal performance

Producers should have a grazing management plan in place that includes the possibility of drought continuing into the 2018 growing season. Implementing the plan in a timely manner is important because 80 percent of the grass growth on rangeland in our region is dictated by May and June precipitation, and drought conditions during that time will reduce the amount of grass available on pasture and rangeland for the duration of the grazing season, as well as hayland. Actively managing your grazing resources to prevent overgrazing will reduce the length of time it takes to recover from drought and improve the long-term sustainability of your operations.

For more information on determining grazing readiness and managing drought, contact your local county Extension office or check out the following NDSU Extension Bulletins.

* Ranchers Guide to Grassland Management IV available at www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/livestock/ranchers-guide-to-grassland-management-iv

* Strategies for Managing Drought in the Northern Plains available at www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/livestock/strategies-for-managing-drought-in-the-northern-plains

– Submitted by County Agent Yolanda Schmidt

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