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West: Managing forage production variation

Ryan D. Rhoades for Progressive Cattleman Published on 16 March 2018

Below-normal moisture and above-normal temperatures have been the spring weather pattern in most of the West. Variability in precipitation and subsequent variation in forage production is a huge challenge to manage.

Unfortunately, most of us tend to be reactive in our approach to managing variability. Ranches that create flexibility and make grazing decisions early tend to be more resilient. Since being proactive is critical to our bottom line, here are a couple of considerations to help set us up for success.

1. Consider developing critical dates: Identifying critical dates when grazing management decisions will be made is step one. Research shows the most important months for moisture are prior to rapid forage growth. Those critical months are spring through early summer (i.e., April to July).

Forage growth is limited outside this window. Select dates to monitor conditions that span cool- and warm-season grass growth patterns. For example, begin by assessing baseline soil moisture on April 15. Then monitor precipitation and forage growth from that date until June 1 (i.e., 50 to 90 percent of growth period) and again until July 15 (i.e., additional moisture will have limited benefit past this date). On these critical dates, compare current and predicted forage resources to demand and take appropriate action (i.e., reduce or increase stocking rate) to balance.

2. Consider incorporating management flexibility: A conservative approach to setting stocking rate can be one of the easiest ways to manage forage variability. Consider resting pastures (10 to 40 percent) during the growing season. Alternatively, increasing the proportion of yearlings can provide flexibility without much investment.

During dry periods, a manager can opt out of purchasing stockers or purchase varying numbers in response to forage conditions and liquidate at any time. This management approach can position the operation for rapid expansion or marketing of high-value replacement females when conditions improve.

3. Consider investing in the grazing system: Evaluate the opportunity to make pasture infrastructure improvements such as water distribution and cross fencing to improve rotational grazing. Improvement cost can be substantial but will create long-term strategic advantages. When forage is in excess, pastures can be deferred and stockpiled for winter feed. Frequent cattle handling allows us to monitor range conditions so timely decisions are made.

The goal of creating flexibility is the common link among each consideration. Overcoming the challenges associated with managing forage variability requires a strategic mindset. However, a healthy rangeland can lead to increased productivity and profitability.  end mark

Ryan D. Rhoades
  • Ryan D. Rhoades

  • Assistant Professor
  • Beef Extension Specialist - Colorado State University
  • Email Ryan D. Rhoades

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