Most cattlemen experienced some impacts from last year’s weather on their grazing management. From severe drought, low forage production, and heavy destocking to minor adjustments in moving cattle off a bit earlier due to water or grass levels. Considering that last fall’s moisture recharge was minimal over most regions, we’re experiencing an open winter and pastures were severely utilized in some cases; this years grazing management should be a concern. We don’t know yet what latter spring and summer might bring in moisture and run-off, but early planning will help prepare for adversity.
Consideration might include: how and when to estimate forage potential, alternatives for developing watering, supplemental feeding, pasture recovery, acquiring additional pasture, and reducing stocking to fit the situation.
A predetermined strategy for liquidating some cattle will help to make critical decisions on a timely basis. Waiting to long to adjust when all forage options are gone, limits the potential to maintain a base breeding herd. Selling strategies typically focus on a first round of herd culling of the old and least productive cows, followed by selling off yearling heifer replacements, and then weaning calves early and putting on feed to cut grazing needs.
Alternative grazing and or feeding may be an option. This may include holding cattle in dry lot or a sacrifice pasture longer and feeding harvested feeds. It my also include grazing alternatives such as CRP or planted forages or crops. The likelihood may be low to rent or acquire additional grazing in your area; however moving cattle to an area with better forage may be an option for some base group of cattle. Costs and risks have to considered.
April and May moisture received will be a useful indication of forage potential for the season. With cool season grass dominance, most grass growth occurs in late May, June, and early July in response to moisture available in the spring. While summer rain will be useful, we can anticipate less grass response.
Attempt to implement a pasture use plan to graze pastures, in which latter season water shortages are likely to develop, early. Consider if further water developments, such as wells, pipelines, or even fencing out dugouts and pumping to tank can be implemented. Inquiry about cost share programs and applications procedures.
While an occasional year of pasture over use may be necessary, be careful to manage pastures for recovery. Pastures over used last year should be given some rest early. Stocking rates should be modest to enhance recovery of prior over use. Extreme utilization removing all ground cover will exaggerate the effects on drought.
Drought isn’t a pleasant thought. It likely doesn’t fit into the operation’s planned cash flow and operating plan. It not only affects you, but becomes a factor in feed, cattle, and commodity markets with significant impacts to agriculture in general. Being prepared mentally and with some contingency plans will help deal with the cards you’re dealt. Anticipate dry, but be optimistically hopeful of the moisture to come.