During the past fall, I noticed many areas of north Texas and southern Oklahoma rangeland that have improved dramatically in terms of species composition and forage production. The Oklahoma Mesonet reported a 12 percent increase in rainfall last year over the average of the last 10 years in southern Oklahoma. I think much of the increase in range condition can be credited to stocking rates being reduced over three to four years of dry growing seasons, combined with increased tame pasture production last year.
Many producers who have a combination of bermudagrass or other tame pasture and rangeland deferred their range for a longer period during the growing season in order to better utilize the bermudagrass. All of this resulted in less utilization of range (sometimes underutilization), better rainfall infiltration and increased vigor of previously overgrazed plants preferred by livestock.
I can't count how many times last fall I heard someone say, "Where did all of this big bluestem come from?" Part of the answer is that less grazing pressure on some rangeland actually allowed the plants to go to seed and therefore become more easily identifiable. So for those of you who have experienced this increase in range condition and in light of early season dry conditions, the question becomes, "How can I keep it there?" The following practices can help.
- Properly stock your range and develop a livestock culling protocol. Seek advice from professionals to assess your range carrying capacity and herd productivity.
- Learn to identify rangeland species using vegetative characteristics (not just the seedhead).
- Identify key species and key areas to monitor use. Monitoring doesn't have to be a chore, but yearly assessment of reference points on rangeland can be critical.
- Provide warm-season, grass-dominated rangeland with some grazing deferment during early spring.
- Employ rotational grazing, if possible, and initiate grazing on your "best pasture."
- Identify and correct grazing distribution problems. If uncorrected, these "rangeland inequities" often result in an overgrazing snowball effect. Some situations simply require moving salt/mineral locations, while others require fencing bottomland pasture separate from upland pasture where feasible.
- Maintain minimum levels of soil cover (i.e., following the previous six practices should accomplish this). It only takes 35 percent ground cover (vegetative and mulch) to get about 85 percent of precipitation into the soil profile. This means less runoff and erosion.
- Consider a wildlife management enterprise. Income from rangeland wildlife resources can often surpass the income from traditional livestock uses of rangeland. Ranchers who successfully manage for wildlife normally have better-condition rangeland, because poor-condition range equals poor wildlife habitat, which equals less potential income.
- Allow adequate time for regrowth prior to the first killing frost (can be 30 to 60 days on rangeland). This practice can provide production for dormant-season grazing, allows for carbohydrate storage, maintenance of the root system and less chance for spring weeds.
- Don't stop controlling brush encroachment just because you have more grass. Brush control can be expensive, but most properly-stocked southern Great Plains rangelands can be managed to provide proper fuel loads and continuity of vegetation to manage a prescribed fire. This is often the least expensive form of brush control.
This last growing season provided many southern Great Plains ranchers an improvement in rangeland production and composition of the plant community. Several factors, such as lower stocking rates, complementary forages and timely late spring and summer rain have helped provide this opportunity. This spring, however, is a different story, with the third-lowest Oklahoma rainfall totals for March and April since 1921 (National Agricultural Statistics Service).
I hope those of you who have experienced these improvements adjust your management to maintain what you've got on your rangeland. If you think you can only do one of these practices, make it the first one on the list. Overstocking not only costs you your range resources, it costs you money.
As always, I encourage you to make an appointment with a rangeland management professional to assess your resource conditions and make more detailed recommendations to address your specific situation.