As a result of the 2017 drought and drought conditions lingering into this year, many North Dakota producers likely will see a reduction in forage production on their pasture and rangeland this year, North Dakota State University Extension livestock experts warn.
“Last year, some producers experienced as much as a 75 percent reduction in forage production on pasture, range and hayland due to the drought,” says Kevin Sedivec, Extension rangeland management specialist.
In many areas, pasture and rangeland also received excess grazing pressure. These pastures may need extra time to recover before producers initiate grazing.
Rick Schmidt, an Extension agent in Oliver County, has seen a delay in grass development this spring, compared with 2017, as a result of overgrazing, cool weather and lack of moisture.
“Last year, western wheatgrass had reached the 3 1/2-leaf stage, or grazing readiness, on May 9,” he reports. “However, this spring, it had only 1 1/2 leaves on May 14.”
Grazing before grass plants reach the appropriate stage of growth for grazing readiness causes up to a 60 percent reduction in forage production, which can reduce the recommended stocking rate and/or animal performance. The stocking rate is the number of specific kinds of animals grazing a unit of land for a specified time.
Grazing readiness for most domesticated pasture - smooth brome grass and crested wheatgrass, for example - is at the three-leaf stage, whereas grazing readiness for most native range grasses is the 3 1/2-leaf stage.
Nearly 90 percent of the state is experiencing some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“If these conditions continue through May, producers will need to reduce their stocking rates by 10 percent or more,” advises Miranda Meehan, Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. “In the event these conditions extend into June, a 20 percent or greater reduction will be needed, depending on severity of drought. Precipitation during these months is critical, as it dictates 80 percent of grass growth in North Dakota.”
Making early adjustments to the stocking rate will prevent overgrazing and reduce the length of time the grass takes to recover from drought, as well as improve the long-term sustainability of livestock operations, the specialists say. Overgrazing can have long-term impacts on the entire rangeland plant community, leading to a loss of forage production, changes in plant species composition, soil erosion, weed growth and a reduction in the soil’s ability to hold water.
Producers should have a plan in place to reduce their stocking rates if overgrazing occurred in 2017 and drought persists in 2018, the specialists add. Producers will need to adjust the length of time they graze and/or the number of animals being grazed.
The quickest way to reduce the stocking rate is culling. However, culling decisions will be more difficult and require a closer look at records because many producers culled more heavily than normal in 2017.