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Grazing management of rangelands in drought

Melinda Ellison for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 May 2022
Cattle grazing

Multiyear drought in much of the western U.S. has made it evident that we will have to make some tough grazing management decisions this year, and likely in the coming years as well.

During average or good precipitation years, precipitation and soil moisture allow plants to capture energy to produce deep roots and production of strong shoots and leaves. Productive forages cultivate into a canopy that encourages moisture retention in soils by shading and decreasing evaporation potential on the soil surface and holding soil moisture in the root system. Low precipitation and hot, windy days trigger poor energy capture and decreased vigor in rangeland plants, which leads to diminished root mass and growth potential. In turn, these characteristics lead to a reduction in soil moisture, which leads to further degradation of plant vigor.

For these reasons, rangeland communities that were in less-than-ideal condition coming into the drought were more severely affected last year than those rangelands that were in good condition. Plant communities with better root systems, canopy cover and plant diversity going into drought have a better chance for recovery after a high-stress year of drought.

It is during drought years that we find ourselves in a conundrum as livestock producers and stewards of the range: balancing the need for pasture resources for livestock and best management for rangeland conditions. Grazing can be beneficial to plant community diversity and growth potential. However, during drought, it is important that we decrease the pressures of grazing to ensure that our rangelands can recover effectively and quickly in the years to come.

Changes to grazing

Drought is a severe stressor on rangeland plants. A secondary stressor in these scenarios can impact these plant communities even further. The level of change in grazing management should be considered based on current rangeland conditions and optimal outcomes in the coming years. At a minimum, consider decreasing the stocking rate by turning out fewer animals or decreasing the duration in which they graze the pasture. It is also important to consider grazing rangeland pastures early in the season and pulling livestock off the range early this year. Finally, some rangeland communities may benefit most from no grazing at all this year. During drought, focus on grazing at low to moderate utilization levels and pay close attention to leaving a minimum of 4 inches of stubble. In these years, an even better strategy is to leave 6 to 8 inches of residual to encourage faster recovery next year. Often, these strategies can be difficult to apply due to lack of alternative grazing or feed options, but these steps are critical to ensuring the future of your rangeland pastures after drought.

In addition to stress on plants, drought can also be a strain on grazing animals. Because the plants have greater difficulty capturing energy, drought conditions lead to lower nutritional value of forages. For livestock, these forages may not meet nutritional requirements and subsequently lead to decreased performance in livestock. When grazing rangeland pastures during drought, it is critical to supplement the animals with a protein and/or energy supplement. Keep a close eye on their body condition so they do not get too thin. In severe drought, listed below are a few ideas to make it through to the other end:

  • Supplement livestock with additional protein and/or energy feeds to decrease pasture grazing intake and stretch available forage. It is best to clip a few samples within the pasture and have them analyzed for nutritional value to optimize the cost and benefit of supplementation. Think outside the box on types of feeds to supplement to decrease costs.

  • Consider weaning calves early to decrease nutritional requirement of the cows.

  • Take stock and keep records of forage availability each year, especially during drought. The year or two after a drought will have residual decreases in forage availability, even in a good precipitation year. Cull animals that are below the threshold for traits of importance and sell as early as possible.

  • Plant alternative feeds on irrigated pastures and save extra crop residue wherever possible to get livestock off the rangeland pastures earlier.

There is no doubt another year of drought will cost us in more ways than one; however, implementing one or more of the management considerations discussed earlier may help prevent long-term losses down the road. While finding those alternatives is stressful and sometimes nearly impossible, doing so will allow your rangeland pastures to recover better and more quickly in the coming years. Here is wishing for significant rainfall and all of us getting through to the other side of this drought mostly unscathed.   end mark

PHOTO: Cattle grazing. Photo by Philip Warren.

Melinda Ellison
  • Melinda Ellison

  • Range Livestock Extension Specialist
  • University of Idaho
  • Email Melinda Ellison