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Learning from this year’s grazing season and preparing for next

Kellie Lasack for Progressive Cattleman Published on 21 September 2017
cattle in pasture

This year’s grazing season was unique no matter where you went. There were areas where they received too much rain at one time, areas where they got perfect amounts of rain throughout the entire season and areas where they needed every drop of rain they could get.

Denise Schwab, an extension beef specialist at Iowa State University, says, “We’ve seen both sides of the extremes this year in Iowa and probably in most of the rest of the Midwest. Part of my area was inundated with too much rain and in heavy rainfall events, so their big challenge was cattle trampling forage during the heavy rain events, runoff and loss of forage due to flooding. Those pastures or paddocks that had heavy mud still have not fully recovered and show thinner forage stand, erosion and cutting of cow paths, especially in newer seedings. The other part of the state has been suffering from drought, so their biggest challenge is lack of forage, particularly from July on.”

Naomi Loomis, a cattle rancher from Nebraska, says, “At the beginning, we had a lot of rain and the grass was really slow coming in, causing our grazing to slow up a bit. Then the sun came out and it got super hot and dry, causing the grass to dry up. It has just been ‘one of those years’ that what we are used to doing, didn’t really work.”

Throughout the Midwest the past grazing season has been stressful for all ranchers. So what can one do to be better prepared? Schwab and Loomis both comment on the effectiveness of doing rotational grazing to give rangeland adequate time to rest and giving your pasture proper fertilization. A few other things Schwab mentions to do to keep your pasture in great shape are to have a diversity of plant species, proper stocking rates, reduced weed infestations and adequate rest prior to a killing freeze. Easier said than done though, considering we can’t predict the weather for the next grazing season. Schwab came up with two emergency plans that every rancher should have in place.

The first emergency plan is if you receive too much rain. This is known as a mud emergency and this involves having a place to move your cattle when you get 2-plus inches of rain in a night. She mentions moving them to a new paddock immediately, preferably one that is high and dry, or even drylot them for a day or two. Too much rain isn’t something you can really prepare for, but you can have a plan ready.

The second emergency plan is for drought. Schwab points out that droughts are usually a little slower coming on, so you have more time to prepare. You need to decide if you have a paddock that you can “ruin.” It’s better to ruin one paddock than to overgraze and ruin all of your pastures. The paddock you choose would be overgrazed and where the cattle would be supplemented on. Next, you need to evaluate your feed resources; consider what you need to get through the summer and winter months – make sure you’re using the right rations so you don’t run out of feed. Since it is still summer, you can produce or buy more feed to get you through the seasons. Other options you can consider are culling some poor performing cows, move some to a drylot and allow others to graze, or wean calves early to reduce the forage needs of the cows.

Schwab’s best advice for keeping pastures in great condition is “Establish a grazing management plan that provides adequate rest between grazing cycles, adjust stocking rate to match forage growth and availability, and treat your pastures like your crops – scout, fertilize, control weeds and manage the system.” She predicts that next year will have a slower growth rate on the pastures that have been drought stressed this year and a later turnout date.  end mark

Kellie Lasack is a freelance writer in Oxford Junction, Iowa. Email Kellie Lasack.

PHOTO: Producers should take time to carefully assess their pastures and prepare for next year's grazing by implementing an emergency plan. Staff photo.

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