‘Baby’ those pastures in a drought year

Grazers hit hard by last year’s drought could be in for another difficult year.

“Hopefully this is not setting up to be a 2002 year, but it certainly looks and feels like that,” said Ed Bork, a rangeland ecology and management researcher at the University of Alberta.

“That can change in the matter of a week or two, but right now, drought is first and foremost on a lot of people’s minds.”

With good reason: Alberta producers can expect to lose up to 43 per cent of their yield potential with a 50 per cent reduction in growing season rainfall, said Bork, who spoke at a drought management workshop hosted by the West-Central Forage Association in mid-April. The warm temperatures of early spring didn’t help either — just a two per cent increase in average temperature can result in an eight per cent decline in productivity.

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Studio shot of glasses of water

“March temperatures were 8 C above normal — that’s four times more,” said Bork. “If that trend continues into May and June, think about how much more water you need to keep a viable forage stand. You need a lot.”

Feed supplies “went a long way” during an easier-than-normal winter, said Dale Engstrom, who runs a custom grazing operation near Entwistle.

“But there’s no reserves for another year,” he said.

And producers who didn’t prepare last year for another potential drought could be in trouble this year, Bork added.

“Drought planning actually started last year — that’s the bad news,” he said. “The good news is you can still baby your pastures this spring to try and get as much out of them as you can.

“I think a lot of us have probably learned from (the severe drought in) 2002 that there are things we should be thinking of in our month-to-month and year-to-year management, and hopefully, we didn’t forget too many of those lessons last year.”

Right now, grazers need to “assume that it’s going to be a drought year” and plan accordingly, Engstrom said in an interview in late April.

“If it doesn’t turn out that way — if we get good rains at the end of next month — then that’s fine, but plan right now as if it’s going to be a drought year,” he said.

“So much of our grass is grown by the middle of July, and if it turns out that lack of moisture is a constraint, then you’ve got to make some tough decisions.

“Hope is not a strategy. You can’t hope for rain. You can’t hope that the neighbour is going to have some crop for you. You’ve got to have a real firm plan in place.”

Stocking density

The first step is delaying the start of grazing season as long as possible, said Engstrom.

“Don’t get out there and graze too darn early,” he said. “Let those plants get some growth on them — a minimum of six inches of height and the three-leaf stage is kind of the rule of thumb.

“Let your pastures get a good start and make use of whatever moisture is available to them.”

And don’t graze too hard.

“Keep the plant healthy and vigorous early in the season so that when rain does come, you’re able to make use of it.”

High-intensity grazing increases the stress on the plants, which then produce less herbage, said Bork.

“If you had a dry year last year, those plants are already stressed going into this year,” he said. “They have a smaller root mass and shallower roots, and they need to be babied more this spring in order to make sure you get everything out of them that you can.”

The best thing producers can do this year is maintain a moderate stocking rate in their pastures.

“As you increase the stocking rate to a heavier rate, inevitably your individual animal performance declines,” said Bork. “If you want to maximize the value of your individual animals this year, including your individual calf growth rates, you should consider either having a moderate stocking rate or even kicking back to a light stocking rate.”

Producers should also leave some leaves on the plants in the pasture, even if that means moving cattle more frequently.

“You always want to leave a healthy amount of above-ground vegetation — 40 or 50 per cent of standing residual biomass — to maintain that healthy root system,” said Bork.

“Not all green has to go into the belly of a cow. A certain proportion of it should carry over on your grassland.”

That goes for leaving some litter, too, which Bork calls “one of the main range-health attributes” of pastures and native grassland.

“The removal of litter increases soil temperature, creates more evaporation, and reduces the effectiveness of the water you do have,” he said. “If you hammered your plants, you don’t have litter, and your plants don’t have deep roots to get the deep moisture, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Estimated soil moisture reserves as of April 28.

Estimated soil moisture reserves as of April 28.
photo: Alberta Agriculture

About the author

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Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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