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WHEN DO I TURN OUT MY COWS? MANAGING SPRING PASTURES DURING AND AFTER DROUGHT

Beef producers will soon be making grazing plans for turning their herds out to spring pastures. While drought planning should be a routine part of the development of short- and long-term grazing plans, many beef cattle herds have withstood successive years of drought. This has prompted producers to hone in on their management skills to make the best use of their pasture forage and carefully maintain carryover to prevent prolonged damage. The question of ‘when can I turn my cows out?’ is an important one, especially for those with dwindling hays stacks or for producers purchasing feed.  

Dr. Edward Bork is a Professor of Rangeland Management in the faculty of Agricultural, Life, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta. He says that, aside from spring rainfall, how your pastures looked when you brought cattle in last fall may be the best indicator of how they will perform in spring. “The better condition the pasture was in October, the faster it will recover,” Bork explains.  

Reduce the long-term impact of drought 
With high winter feed costs, it may be tempting for producers to place cattle in pastures sooner than they normally would, but Bork cautions to be aware of potential long-term consequences. He points out that when we stress forages, we not only affect the above-ground growth but the below-ground root system as well.  

“Deep roots require the most energy to maintain so they are the first to go,” says Bork, which means that when those roots are not maintained, the plant can lose its ability to draw from deep soil moisture reserves. Those deep roots store energy to keep the plant active during a drought and are also important for long-term survival. Native and tame plants have different root systems. In some cases, native plants appear to bounce back from drought quicker, because as long as they are healthy, they have much deeper roots than many tame species, Bork explains.  

 As enticing as it may be to turn cattle out early, or in some cases even just at a “normal” time, producers should consider holding off if their pastures have been stressed recently.  “By managing pastures cautiously in the short term, we can prevent having to deal with drought-related issues for the next 10 years,” says Bork. Avoiding long-term damage to plant health and root systems will help prevent erosion and even reduce a pasture’s risk for weed encroachment. 

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