Grazing And Pasture Plans For A Dry Season

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Previous experience has highlighted the need for livestock producers in Western Canada to have preparedness plans in place in the event of drier-than-normal summers.

“It’s important to prepare a grazing plan that matches the estimated forage production to the animal numbers, and takes into consideration rest periods to allow plant recovery between grazings and the timing of forage growth patterns,” says Grant Lastiwka, forage, grazing and beef specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Olds. “Producers need to calculate what forage resources they have, what they can expect to grow and what is needed for their grazing year.”

Producers should make a list of their pastures, the pasture size and estimated yield per acre. Multiply this out to get the yield/pasture. For example: 10 pastures that are 50 acres each and have an estimated yield of 2,000 pounds per acre equals a pasture yield of 100,000 lbs. per pasture for a total projected yield of 1,000,000 lbs.

Pick a realistic date when the cows go to pasture (for example June 2 at day 153) and when you think the grazing season will end (October 30 = day 303). This means that 150 days of grazing are estimated. If this makes sense, calculations can continue, if not, adjust and recalculate. Take the total number of cow-calf pairs e. g. (150) and multiply by the daily forage consumed by each cow (about 2.5 per cent of body weight) and multiply this by the number of pairs to get the intake/day. Then multiply that number by the days of grazing and an estimate of needed forage can be determined. For example, if a producer has 150 cow-calf pairs and the average daily forage consumption is 45 lbs. per pair (including 10 lbs. as ungrazed residue) this means there is a daily need for 6,750 lbs. of forage. If that daily need is then multiplied by the 150 grazing days, the total forage need is 1,012,500 lbs.


In the first 10-pasture calculation, there was 1,000,000 lbs. of projected yield. Since this is about equal to the estimated needs of 1,012,500 lbs., the projections for forage and animals are well matched.

“Further planning takes into consideration rest periods,” says Lastiwka. “To calculate this, take the number of pastures (in this example there are 10) and the number of herds (in this case one). Estimate a conservative rest period between grazings for plants to recover; for example, 60 days. This 60 days of rest divided by 9 (10 minus the pasture the herd is in) gives a grazing period of six to seven days per pasture. If the animals are left in each pasture for six to seven days, it will be at least 60 days before a pasture is regrazed. It is also important to consider the timing of the growth or growth pattern over the season.”


If animal carrying capacity and pasture rest periods are in balance, it’s time to look at the water situation. If short of water, it may be necessary to fence cattle out of the surface water sources and look into other water delivery systems.

When pasture and animals cannot be matched, consider forage and animal options. Forage options are: greater grazing control, fertilizing, seeding annuals, renting pasture, extending the winter feeding period, supplementing on pasture or sacrificing certain pastures. Cattle options are: grouping herds, selling open cows and yearlings, weaning early, culling cows, selling less productive cows or leasing out cows.

“Consider both the short-and long-term grazing goals along with family and business goals,” says Lastiwka. “Communicate concerns and possible alternatives to the people who have an effect on the outcome of these goals occurring. Function as a team to give feedback or carry out the needed actions. Communication is important to relieve stress and create success when facing a difficult situation, such as a drought year.”


Look at the cash flow plan. “Pencil out” various alternatives and corresponding action dates. As a team, rank each possibility so that cool-headed decisions can be made in advance and acted on quickly in the “heat” of a drought. Tie actions to key dates so that changes can be made far enough in advance if moisture conditions become poor or critical. Cut expenses before they occur and monitor cash flow monthly. If supplemental feed is accepted as an option (economically this is often too costly) make sure it is when it gives the best returns on its cost. that is in early spring before pastures are overgrazed and the damage is done.

Drought, grazing and financial planning do not stop here as planning actions, monitoring results, controlling to stay on target and replanning-as-needed are a continual process for success.

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