Careful management helps in drought

Producers who see green grass coming up through stockpiled forage in a dry year may be tempted to turn out their cattle early, but they are advised to delay grazing until the new grass has more growth and structure. | Jim Bauer photo

This spring has been very dry in much of the western United States and Canada, and if dry conditions continue, there will be management issues cattle producers must address.

Jim Bauer, a rancher near Acme, Alta., has been involved with forage associations and grazing management for years. In 1984, he helped start the Grey Wooded Forage Association, serving members in Clearwater, Mountain View, Red Deer, Lacombe, Ponoka and Wetaskiwin counties, and managed it for 11 years.

“We started it when my wife and I were a young couple ranching near Rocky Mountain House. I gained experience in grazing management in those early days when we were hearing about rotational grazing and Allan Savory, and I developed a grazing school for our members,” says Bauer.

Eventually, they took over his wife’s family ranch at Acme, which meant a move away from the edge of the foothills with more precipitation and some forested areas, to the prairie, with less rainfall.

They have lived at the Acme ranch for 26 years.

The best advice he’d give producers facing a dry season is to be prepared.

“When I did grazing courses, I encouraged people to carefully manage their pastures in the good years; focus on building health and resiliency into those pastures when conditions are good.”

It is important to build root systems and have good ground cover and litter to hold moisture in the soil and lose less to evaporation.

He says well-managed pastures (not overgrazed) will be resilient, and when drier times come, producers must be careful to not overuse them. Pastures that go into drought in good shape, and don’t get overused during the drought, can recover quickly, he says.

“If pastures are in rundown condition and then go into drought, the only advice I have is to start to destock. We can’t make it rain.”

Producers who know their grasslands are healthy can do several things, he says.

“I stockpile grass and we usually have lots of grass in the spring but we’re dry this spring. When green grass is starting to come and you are tempted to turn cows out — maybe you are tired of feeding hay and the cows are tired of eating hay and hungry for something green — it’s wise to continue feeding hay a bit longer or put out hay on the pasture so the cows are getting some dry matter,” he says.

The lush green grass is high in nutrients and protein and short of fibre. Cows can go through it very fast. It’s better to wait until it has a little more growth and structure before grazing.

“I also encourage people to have critical rain dates in mind. Those dates may vary depending on where you are and what your seasons are like. When we’re faced with a dry spring here, if we don’t get a reasonably good rain by the first of June, that’s a trigger for me to start thinking seriously about doing something different,” he says. A person always needs Plan B or C.

Another date he looks at is June 21 — the summer solstice.

“At that point it’s time to consider destocking. On a dry year, a person needs to think about it by the end of May, but if you still haven’t gotten any rain three weeks later, it’s time to make that decision,” says Bauer.

Acting early pays off. Even if it rains after you reduce numbers, you still have fewer growing days for that season.

“One of the things we do, and something I suggest for people to consider, is having a multi-stock enterprise — either sheep along with cattle, or yearlings as well as cow-calf pairs,” he says. Then you might be able to sell something, like the yearlings, and not cut into the genetics of your cow herd.

“Whatever size herd you run, if some of those animals are yearlings, you can move them off at the start of a dry year. This can make a huge difference in the amount of forage you’d need every day to feed the herd. We’ve had to do this a few years.”

He says it’s disappointing to sell yearlings in June before you can put another 150 pounds on them, but it’s better than waiting too long and having to sell cows, or sell when cattle are starting to lose weight and the price is low because everyone else is having to sell at that time too.

Ian Murray, ranching in Alberta, says producers who try to manage for drought when the drought is already on will find it’s likely too late.

“We create a grazing plan in February for the entire year. I’ll know where those cattle are supposed to be, at any given time. We run four groups — mature cows, young cows, yearlings and replacement heifers. If I have a plan, I won’t have two herds needing the same dugouts, for instance,” he says.

“We make a plan for what we consider an average year, with expected stocking rate, and identify any holes in it — and then monitor that grazing plan with inventory of forage available. Then we can make good decisions, using trigger dates. We’ll know if we have too many cattle for the forage supply in front of us at such-and-such date, and know what we need to do,” says Murray.

Bauer cautions against trying to feed through drought (buying more hay instead of selling some cows) because the end of drought is uncertain and buying hay can be expensive.

“If you’ve sold your yearlings, and drought continues through the following year, and you sold all the calves that fall (and don’t have yearlings for the next year) and it’s still dry, then you need to start culling hard on the cows,” he says.

Every herd can stand some culling, he says. An objective look at the herd will reveal some options.

“You take the bottom end off, and if it stays dry you sell the next bottom end, etc. I’ve never been faced with having to sell all the cows, but we’ve certainly had to take a cut out of them some years,” Bauer says.

If pasture looks like it might be short, yearlings can go to a feedlot at full value, and this can take some pressure off the pastures. “This is in contrast to running a 300-cow ranch and having to get rid of cows because you are out of grass, at the same time everyone else is out of grass,” says Murray.

When that happens, the cows are worthless because everyone is selling cows, but the yearlings are still close to the same value. They can go off pasture and on feed.

If grass will still be short, producers can start culling cows and get rid of the ones that aren’t making much money, or are causing grief, he says.

“You need to manage the grass and make those decisions well ahead of a situation where you only have a few days’ worth of grass left and are not sure what to do,” says Murray.

Sometimes things happen that are completely unpredictable, however.

“You might have the best grazing plan that would put you through a dry summer with forage left over for next spring, and have a grass fire go through and change it completely.” It’s hard to be prepared for something like that.

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