Kevin Sedivec, Extension Rangeland Specialist, NDSU
Many parts of North Dakota were ravaged by drought in 2006, especially during the spring and early summer months. Pre-samples of forage production in mid July, 2006 indicated native rangeland in south-western and south-central North Dakota was 40-70 percent below normal production levels. Fortunately, much of North Dakota received rainfall in late August and September, allowing the plants to somewhat recover going into the winter. So, what can we expect to achieve for forage, both grazing and haying production in 2007?
Areas That Received Late Summer Rain
Pasture and hay lands that received rain in late August and September should show progressive improvement in plant growth in 2007, especially the cool-season grasses. If moisture is near normal in May and June, forage production will be near normal to slightly depressed (10 to 30 percent) compared to average years, depending on your grazing management strategies during the fall months in 2006. Since May through July were very dry throughout many areas of the state, most of the pastures that were grazed and hay ground that was harvested in 2006 were stressed and production significantly reduced. Forage production will be improved because of the late summer rains, but due to the early stress, forage production will be less than normal. Warm-season grasses should achieve normal yields if moisture and temperatures are normal in 2007.
The cool-season grasses will produce 60 to 80 percent of average yields if moisture levels are normal for the 2007 growing season; however, if moisture is a surplus, production levels could recover to normal, unless the grasses were overgrazed last fall. These overgrazed grasses will show significant stress and lower vigor due to the combination of heavy use and winter conditions. Low vigor plants can easily have a reduced production potential of 5% to 35%, depending on use.
Areas That Remain Drought Stricken in 2006
Many areas of south-western North Dakota and central North Dakota remain abnormally dry during the second half of the growing season in 2006. Regardless of future rainfall, forage losses will be significant in 2007. Cool-season grasses produced plants with very little leaf tissue in 2006, creating a situation where plants go into the winter months extremely stressed and low in vigor. Regardless of 2007 moisture conditions, expect a reduction in forage production in 2007 and plan for alternatives (more pasture, more hay, annual forages). The longer you grazed these pastures during the 2006 fall months, the lower your 2007 production will be. If moisture continues to be poor during the spring growing season, many ranchers and hay growers can expect 40 to 70 percent losses in forage production in 2007.
If Spring Rains Come, Will the Grass Grow?
This is obviously a silly question, because the answer is yes. Rain will definitely be needed to stave off a total disaster in the south-central and south-western North Dakota, as well as much of the northern tier counties of South Dakota in 2007. If the drought continues in 2007 in these areas, ranchers will lose grazing days and suffer from reduced hay production. If rain occurs at normal levels, grass growth will occur; however, some forage loss can be expected due to a residual effect of lower vigor from stress.
You should plan ahead to compensate for reduced forage in the 2007 growing season. The best way to combat a drought is to always be prepared for one. Grazing management that incorporates proper timing (not grazing before the grasses are ready) and a grazing system will ensure healthy range plants that can withstand a one-year drought.