Grazing during drought conditions must be managed

Farming in “next year country” is the usual canard about farmers’ penchant for seeking the illusive best-case scenario in terms of productivity and price.

But grazing is actually last year’s country, according to Diane Westerlund, manager of the Chinook Applied Research Association.

CARA is based in Oyen, within Alberta’s special areas, and this year experienced the driest spring in roughly the last 100 years. That has challenged pasture and feed supplies.

“The reality is we’re really last year’s country. What management practices and what happens in the current year very much influences what next year is going to look like,” Westerlund said in a July 4 webinar organized by Alberta Agriculture.

Dry conditions in 2018 led to some overworked pastures but few reductions in cattle numbers, she said. Then came a cold spring that used up any feed reserves and high feed prices due to short supplies.

What now? Westerlund listed some options for ranchers to manage their grazing.

In larger pastures, there are places cattle typically don’t frequent, and those areas might still have forage. Salt placement, temporary fencing or temporary water troughs can encourage or allow use of those areas.

When pasture is scant, hay crops aren’t usually great either, so grazing the hay is an option. Westerlund cautioned ranchers to be careful of bloat in fields with alfalfa and clover. Bloatguard or Alfasure can limit that risk.

“You have to be careful too because I think our hay production can be looked at as a long-term resource as well, so you don’t want to put so much grazing pressure that you’re harming the productivity of the hay in the long term.”

Crops unlikely to yield well can be grazed instead. Westerlund recommended speaking with cropping neighbours, if ranchers don’t have crop of their own. Agreements could be possible that will benefit both parties.

“There are some counties that have had sufficient moisture and may have some grazing resources that are being under-utilized,” said Westerlund. Yes, there are costs, and any leasing agreement should be put in writing.

“Make sure you understand the economics so that there’s not a big surprise at the end of the summer and bills have to be paid.”

High-protein or high-energy bales or pellets can help, as well as creep-feeding calves. Be careful that weeds aren’t brought in with hay or other materials, she said. Consider how it will be fed and to which cattle. It could involve designating a sacrifice area where supplemental feeding occurs.

Auction markets are already seeing higher numbers of cow-calf pairs as some ranchers are already taking this step, said Westerlund. Be strategic in culling to maintain the basic genetics of the herd.

Westerlund said it’s an option, albeit an expensive one. She has heard costs of $3.20 per cow per day.

Cows need less feed volume and nutrition once they aren’t producing milk for calves, so that can reduce total feed requirements.

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