Dickinson Research Extension Center
1089 State Avenue
Dickinson, ND 58601
Drought Emergency Grazing Practices will have Costs Next Season
L. Manske PhD, Range Scientist
Amy M. Kraus, Composition Assistant
Thomas C. Jirik, Agriculture Communication Editor
North Dakota State UniversityDickinson Research Extension Center
Northern Plains beef producers who used emergency grazing to compensate for recent
forage shortages will continue to experience the effects of last summer's dry
conditions even beyond the 2003 grazing season, says a North Dakota State University
"Ranches without drought forage plans have been pressured into using 'emergency'
practices that usually include grazing grass residue on domesticated-grass spring
pastures, on summer pastures, and on grass haylands. These emergency grazing practices
are commonly assumed to be less costly than the purchase of additional hay because
of lower cash-flow costs, but the biological and financial costs will be evident
next season in reduced production of herbage weight and subsequent reduction in
pounds of calf per acre," observes Lee Manske, range scientist at NDSU's Dickinson
Research Extension Center.
Many emergency grazing practices can negatively affect perennial grasses. Grasses
reproduce primarily by vegetative tillering from axillary buds on the crowns of
established plants and only infrequently by seed production and seedling development.
Survival of perennial grasses through the winter and their regrowth in the spring
depend on the plants' ability to store sufficient nutrients during the latter
portion of the growing season, Manske says.
The late-summer and fall greening of grasslands is the beginning vegetative growth
stages of next year's lead plants, he explains. The fall tillers will have active
leaf material until the end of the growing season, when the chlorophyll fades
and the leaves lose their green color. Throughout the winter, the crown of the
plant, some portions of the root system and some leaf tissue remain active by
using stored carbohydrates. If plants are healthy and have adequate carbohydrate
reserves, most of the fall tillers will remain alive. Early in the spring, the
leaf portions with intact cell walls can regreen and the tillers can resume active
The quantity of carbohydrates stored during the winter hardening process, which
occurs between mid-August and mid-October, is closely related to the amount of
active leaf material on each tiller. Emergency drought grazing practices can remove
enough leaf material to diminish the quantity of carbohydrates stored. "Under
these conditions, some tillers may not survive until spring, and plants that do
will produce tillers with reduced height and weight," Manske says.
Reductions in height during the succeeding growing season can range from 17 to
43 percent. Reductions in herbage weight are related to the severity of the grazing,
with most pastures producing 50 percent or less of their normal herbage weight.
Ranches that implemented emergency grazing practices this year should be prepared
for diminished herbage production during the upcoming grazing season and for the
necessary stocking rate reduction, he recommends.
"Producers facing these herbage reductions will most likely need additional sources
of grazeable forage," Manske says. "Seeded annual cereals like oats, forage barley
or foxtail millet, which can be successfully grazed between the fourth- or fifth-leaf
stage and the flowering stage, can be used for additional early and mid-season
grazing. Spring-seeded winter cereals like winter rye, winter wheat, or winter
triticale can serve as forage for additional late-season grazing."
Purchasing emergency forage during growing seasons with drought conditions can
be costly, but stop-gap use of emergency grazing practices is not a satisfactory
alternative. The actual costs of emergency grazing practices are greater than
the costs of emergency forage because the reduced grassland productivity that
results from the grazing practices can last for several years, Manske notes.
Two long-term practices that minimize the effects of growing seasons with below-normal
precipitation can help beef producers:
Drought growing seasons occur with an average frequency of two in every 12 years
in the Northern Plains, and ranches with drought forage plans face herbage reductions
16 percent of the time, Manske notes. However, ranches without drought forage
plans will experience reduced herbage production with a greater frequency than
"These ranches must contend with herbage reductions not only in the years with
below-normal precipitation but also in the following two- to three-year periods
of grassland recovery from the stress of emergency grazing," Manske emphasizes.
"Consequently, for 33 to 50 percent of the years that ranches operate without
a drought forage plan, they will have below-normal herbage production and the
amount of forage produced will not be adequate to feed a fully stocked cow herd."
"Growing seasons with drought conditions occur frequently and should not be considered abnormal, emergency situations. Grazing strategies that enhance plant health should be implemented and plans for a contingency supply of forage should be developed before the next growing season with drought conditions," Manske says.
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