Options for Drought-Depleted Pastures

Options for Drought-Depleted Pastures

May 9, 2008

It's decision time for ranchers whose pastures are suffering from drought.

Rangeland in some parts of western Nebraska has been short of moisture since last summer and fall. In many areas there is little carry-over forage available for cattle to graze this year, according to Dr. Ivan Rush, beef specialist at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center.

As of April 22, most of the Panhandle remained in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor web site, operated by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Most of Sioux County was in the extreme category. Severe drought prevailed in an area surrounding this, including parts or all of Dawes, Box Butte, Scotts Bluff and northern Morrill counties. Moderate drought conditions existed in parts or all of Sheridan, northern Garden, and the remainder of Scotts Bluff and Morrill counties. The remainder of the Panhandle, to the south and east, was rated as abnormally dry, including Kimball, Cheyenne, Deuel and southern Garden counties.

Before turning cattle out to graze, Rush recommends that ranchers assess their range condition, and project how much forage will be available to their herd in three different scenarios: if drought continues, if rainfall is normal, and if rainfall is above-average. Then they can think of alternatives in making decisions.

Rain can change the situation, but at the present time many people are concerned whether adequate grass will be available.

The lack of moisture already is beginning to affect cool-season grasses such as crested wheatgrass and cool-season native species such as needle and thread, according to Rush. By mid-May to early June warm season species such as blue grama and buffalo grass normally start adding new vegetation. Rain or snow within the next couple weeks will help the cool-season grasses some, but are needed and will definitely help warm-season grasses, Rush noted.

But in areas affected by drought last summer and fall, producers should be cautious even if there is some regrowth this spring, Rush said. Last year's drought may have affected the root reserves. If plants are to rebuild good root structure, they need to time to rejuvenate their leaf structure without the added pressure of grazing.

What options do producers have?

Rush suggests delaying summer turnout as long as possible, preferably until good grass growth is well started in pastures. It is acknowledged that the alternative, feeding harvested forages, is very expensive. But the cost might be worth it to protect the long-term productivity of summer range. "You could do drastic harm, both in the short and long term, otherwise," he noted.

Those who run yearlings have more options than those who are strictly cow-calf operators as to when to market cattle. They have options whether to put them on grass at all, or take them off early.

Cow-calf operators should consider making plans now to wean calves early in a few months - either by taking them to a feedlot or designing feeding rations and providing a feeding area. Rush said calves as young as four or five months can be weaned easily with minimal health problems, given quality rations.

One advantage of early weaning is that the mother cow's feed requirements are reduced by 25 percent or more. The cow can maintain body condition on fairly sparse, low-quality forage as long as she's not lactating. This will reduce the forage utilization on stressed pastures.

Rush also noted that supplements will be considered as a way to stretch pastures. A low level of supplementation will actually increase the cow's intake of forage. It takes 4-5 pounds or more of supplement per head to substitute for forage. Help is available from Extension educators and range technicians with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

David Ostdiek
Communications Specialist
Panhandle REC, Scottsbluff