Farmers and ranchers are optimists by nature. They need to be, when they make the decision to feed their cows purchased feeds through the winter because they fed all their own hay during the summer. Or when they plant seed into dry, dusty fields, believing the rains will return.
On that optimistic note, let us assume your area will receive good moisture this winter and spring, and pastures that were parched last summer will emerge with new, green vigor. Should your grazing practices return to business as usual, or should last year’s drought continue to influence your management decisions?
The latter, says University of Nebraska agronomy professor Bruce Anderson, PhD. After suffering damage during the drought, plants need time to recover. Good moisture conditions could bring a nice green-up next spring, but looks can be deceiving. Carbohydrate reserves in plant roots likely are in short supply, and premature grazing could set the plants back. With that in mind, Anderson suggests delaying spring turnout for at least a couple of weeks beyond the usual date, even if pasture conditions look good.
Rancher Mark Frasier, whose family operates Frasier Farms near Sterling, Colo., also stresses the need to protect the health of forage plants as they recover. In the early part of the growing season, he says, managers need to be cautious about taking too much too early.
Frasier notes that on his family’s ranch, and in many other areas, native forage plants are genetically adapted for resilience to dry conditions. They recover once moisture returns, provided managers do not hamper that recovery. But if ranchers allow cattle to graze those plants too soon, before root reserves rebuild, they will come back slower the next time, and forage production for the entire year could be reduced.
Frasier also notes that pastures might have very little residual forage left from last season, meaning cattle will be grazing virtually all new growth instead of a mix of dried residual and green forage. This can result in more grazing stress on the plants. He plans to monitor pastures closely next spring and move cattle to prevent grazing from getting ahead of plant growth.
Anderson adds that in some areas ranchers grazed pastures that greened up following some late rains this fall. He suspects that fall grazing on late growth further depleted root reserves, which will hinder forage growth in the spring and leave plants vulnerable to damage from premature grazing. Wherever possible, he advises leaving that late forage growth ungrazed, allowing plants to rebuild root reserves for stronger growth next spring. Where cattle did graze that fall growth, plants might need extra recovery time in the spring.