Pasture Management During Severe Dry Conditions

By Trevor Lennox, Range Management Extension Specialist, Swift Current

Multiple years of drought can result in lower overall forage production on pastureland. Impacts of the prolonged drought not only reduce the amount of plant material available for livestock consumption but reduce the amount of plant material retained as carryover litter on the soil surface at the end of the grazing season.

Litter refers to the old plant material left over from previous years of grazing; it can be either standing, recently fallen to the ground or partially decomposing material. Litter benefits pastureland functioning through nutrient cycling, improved water infiltration and better moisture retention (i.e., snow trapping or slowing soil moisture evaporation by reducing direct solar energy). When moisture is scarce during a drought, rangelands with adequate litter will produce more forage than those with low to absent litter levels. On native pastureland in the southern prairies, litter is so important that approximately 50 per cent of the yield in any given year can be attributed to litter.

From a pasture management perspective, where litter levels can be retained on the soil surface, production levels are easier to maintain and the time required to recover from drought can be reduced. Management strategies that can help retain adequate litter levels and minimize long-term drought impacts on pastureland may include:

  1. Delaying the spring turnout date, allowing plants additional recovery time before grazing.
  2. Early removal of cattle in the fall to shorten grazing season length.
  3. Reduce overall forage demand by reducing livestock numbers.
  4. Develop water infrastructure to help improve availability and distribution of water in a pasture.
  5. Improve fencing infrastructure, such as cross-fencing. Portable electric fencing systems can also be useful for getting livestock to graze in areas they would not typically use.
  6. Secure additional feed resources (i.e., provide creep feed on pasture, rent additional land for grazing or to grow annual forages).

While we do not know what the future holds, we do know that during periods of prolonged drought, implementing management changes to reduce forage demand is recommended. A combination of the above options is likely the best approach as each operation is unique in how they can deal with reduced forage production on their existing land.

The ministry has various programs available to assist producers to implement such strategies, including developing water resources like the Farm and Ranch Water Infrastructure Program or implement best management practices by improving grazing management or seeding of annual cropland acres to perennial forage through the Resilient Agricultural Landscapes Program. For additional information contact your local range management extension specialist or call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

Dealing with dry conditions can be stressful for producers. It is important to stay connected with friends and family and reach out if additional resources, such as the Farm Stress Line at 1-800-667-4442, as needed.

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