The author is a pasture and range consultant with the Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, Okla.
Every livestock producer needs to develop a contingency plan and then carefully monitor specific aspects of their pasture system to ensure survival through extreme weather conditions.
The best first step to avoid feed shortages is to provide good pasture management before the weather extremes occur, which will allow more plan flexibility. This requires a sound grazing strategy and monitoring forages throughout the year to maintain pastures in a healthy condition at all times. If your pastures are in poor shape when the extreme weather conditions occur, the effects will manifest quickly, and it will take longer to recover once weather conditions return to normal.
Having healthy soils will help maintain your pastures in good condition. In the context of a properly managed production system, the five principles of soil health are:
- Cover the soil
- Minimize soil disturbance
- Practice plant diversity
- Maintain continuous living plants
- Integrate livestock
Following these five principles will improve the mineral and water cycles and make your pastures more resilient to extreme weather conditions.
Climatologists predict this will be a La Niña winter. For the southern Great Plains, that means a warmer and drier winter. Since precipitation is often the most limiting factor in ranching, it is important to keep good precipitation records.
Monitoring rainfall allows you to see where you are throughout the year. A useful monitoring tool is a water year precipitation table. Using your rainfall records allows you to recognize when you are entering a drier than normal period and adjust stocking rates.
Grazing exclusion cages in each pasture are an easy way to monitor your forage resource throughout the year. These allow you to see the amount of forage that is produced and compare with what has been consumed. This information can help you decide when it is time to rotate the livestock to the next pasture and allows the pasture to rest and recover prior to the next grazing event. Preventing overgrazing is a primary contributor to building soil health and pasture resilience.
Monitor stocking rate
The most important component that we can control is stocking rate. For assistance in determining the correct stocking rate, check with your local county extension office, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or a local consultant. Additional information on stocking rates can be found at bit.ly/HFG-stocking.
Once you have determined the maximum proper stocking rate, you need to decide if you should stock at 100% capacity. Keep your stocking rates conservative, flexible, and adaptable each year. We generally recommend producers stock at 75% to 80% capacity, so when weather and forage conditions change, you have a cushion and more time to react without damaging your soil and forage resource.
Overstocking has the greatest impact on vegetation resources and animal performance. If you are conservatively stocked in really good rainfall years, it enables you to take advantage of the extra forage produced with additional stockers, prescribed burning, or stockpiling forage for winter grazing.
A rotational grazing system allows pastures to rest and recover following a grazing event. If your forage base is native grasses, it is recommended to leave 6 to 8 inches of stubble height. For introduced forages like bermudagrass, a 4-inch stubble height is recommended.
Another easy way to monitor pastures is to use a grazing stick (yardstick) and measure plant height when livestock is turned into the pasture and then monitor height while the pasture is being grazed. When the grass height reaches the desired minimum stubble height, it is time to rotate to the next pasture.
Maintaining these stubble heights throughout the winter months helps insulate the soil surface and protect the plant tissues from cold temperatures, which helps keep them from suffering winter injury. Keeping the soil covered also promotes infiltration and slows runoff when precipitation occurs.
Maintaining a healthy plant community that keeps the soil covered and capturing and retaining the precipitation received makes your operation more drought resilient. Additionally, pastures will recover more quickly when favorable weather returns.
For a video example of why cover is important for capturing and maintaining soil moisture, go to bit.ly/HFG-cover.
Weather extremes are normal events that grazing managers must be prepared to work with. By taking the time to develop a pasture management contingency plan and monitoring those variables that indicate changes may be occurring, you can put those plans into action and reduce the negative impact of extreme weather events that are becoming more common.
For more information on how to prepare for drought with a regenerative ag mindset, visit bit.ly/HFG-prepare.
Drought management considerations
- Have a drought contingency plan
- Cull cattle
- Consider early weaning
- Test hay for quality before purchasing
- Have a grazing management plan
- Look for toxic plants
This article appeared in the January 2021 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 32.
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