Updated February 2018
Droughts can have negative impacts on our pastures that could last for years to come. In addition, the more your pastures are stressed and overgrazed, the longer it will take them to recover. Most producers can easily overcome seasonal or localized drought by feeding hay reserves or buying hay at a reasonable cost, but when drought is regionalized and extended, there is not an easy way to keep production levels high. It is very difficult to sell cows and reduce stocking rates, but our focus needs to be placed on the health of our pastures if we are going to be profitable over the long term. Continued overgrazing will only further degrade the land, causing even more problems in the future.
While welcomed rains can happen, don't be deceived and think everything is back to normal. While it's certainly nice to have forages to graze, winter annuals will use much of the soil moisture and nutrients, and reduce their availability for our warm-season forages. In other words, if we don't receive adequate rainfall in late April, May and June, we will have drought conditions during the growing season. Producers are encouraged to evaluate their historical stocking rates and reduce cow numbers by as much as 50 percent if they haven't already began to done so.
Here is a list of strategies for you to consider in times of drought:
- Keep a complete and current inventory of your resources, such as hay supplies, cattle numbers and forage growth, and how long these will sustain your operation. Know whether or not you have adequate stored moisture and the amount of forage it will grow. You should critically evaluate your moisture situation on May 1 and again on June 1.
- Plan to rest some of your pastures for at least part of the growing season. Another article, Management Guidelines Can Help Improve Pasture Condition, Optimize Forage Utilization, should prove helpful.
- Take full advantage of winter annuals. You might consider increasing stock density by combining cows into one herd or using electric fencing to subdivide pastures - especially from March to May.
- Be prepared to control weeds through stock density or herbicides. Start scouting pastures in early April, and know what your target weed species are and what they look like.
- Continually monitor rainfall and forage growth throughout the growing season, and be prepared to adjust stocking rates accordingly or purchase hay.
- If you are going to need hay, secure a source quickly if you are not willing to reduce your stocking rate.
- Soil-test any pasture you might consider fertilizing. We still have many producers who call us for fertilizer recommendations without current soil test results.
Finally, keep your eyes open and stay ahead of the game as much as possible. Do not stick your head in the sand hoping everything will be okay. Have a plan and don't be afraid to make tough decisions. A wrong decision is often better than no decision at all.