Managing grazing for drought
By Barton Stam
In the last couple months I’ve been asked several times to address strategies for grazing during drought. I hope I have some ideas to help, but I’m really hoping they won’t be necessary. Hope probably isn’t going to be a great strategy, but monitoring weather and snowpack conditions should be among the first parts of an overall drought survival plan.
Mountain snowpack can be easily monitored through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) SNOTEL sites. In mid-February I’m happy to see snowpack improving, but the next couple months will be critical.
The Wyoming Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation is already predicting the spring snowmelt runoff will be below average, at least for some areas. Mountain snowpack will not influence rangeland forage production greatly, but will of course have tremendous impacts on irrigation supplies and stream and river flows.
Start planning early
For rangeland forage production precipitation, right before and during green-up is king. It would be great if range managers and livestock producers could predict this better farther out. What they can do though, is pay attention to the growing season precipitation and temperatures and then enact a drought plan accordingly.
In my area, one of the rainstorms in 2020 came the second week of June. This rain did little for rangeland forage production. An inch of rain in early April would have been much more valuable than this June rain.
There is a window of opportunity for rains and spring snows to have the greatest impact on forage production. The timing of this window will vary depending on elevation, plant species and aspect among other factors. If the window has come and gone with less than adequate precipitation, serious consideration needs to be taken towards implementing a drought plan.
An important part of a drought plan is working with other parties which have influence over a ranch. If producers have federal grazing allotments this should be a priority and now is not too early to begin planning.
The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Worland office recently sent out a letter to all its permittees inviting them to start planning with their rangeland management specialist. The letter was sent out in January.
The middle of winter is probably too early to predict a growing season drought with accuracy, but it is not too early to be paying attention to weather trends such as a La Niña cycle, which typically brings dry spring weather to Wyoming, and to begin planning in case a drought does occur.
Several media venues have covered this letter and I commend our partners at the BLM for sending this letter out. I would encourage producers to meet with their agency range specialists regularly, drought or not.
A decreased supply of forage is the primary challenge during a drought. Any grazing strategy should maximize the efficiency of how producers utilize the forage they have.
Improving livestock distribution may be one of the most effective ways to do this. Expansive pastures often have areas which are not used by livestock. While nowhere near a magic bullet, improving livestock distribution can help alleviate the decreased supply of forage.
Distance from water, steep slopes, shade, wind protection, etc. are all factors influencing distribution.
This winter I’ve been working with a permittee and rangeland management specialist on an allotment where the majority of the pasture has been underutilized due to poor distribution for perhaps several decades. In this case, steepness of slope is the main challenge.
Through strategic use of molasses lick tubs and protein blocks cattle distribution has improved. The cattle are now taking advantage of previously unused areas and accessing forage they didn’t before.
There appears to be residual feed from at least several years in these areas. The supplements are placed in areas with good feed which are less likely to be used, and then cattle are moved to those areas.
These supplements are widely used, and unfortunately I often see them placed in areas where cattle are already likely to naturally utilize. Perhaps not so coincidentally, these areas are also handy spots to deliver the tubs. Some time spent planning where to strategically place these tubs and delivering them to this strategic spot will help realize their considerable value as a livestock distribution tool.
In a drought sometimes water must be hauled to livestock. Select water delivery locations carefully. Of course, it’s not possible to haul water just anywhere, but are there locations where it could be reasonably hauled which could also improve livestock distribution? Producers should ask, while grazing this pasture, is it possible and strategic to change water locations?
Managing livestock grazing to minimize the risk of poisonous plants and toxic conditions within plants is another critical part of a drought plan. Some plants, such as death camas and low larkspur may be among the first species to green up in the spring.
Low larkspur does tend to do better in cool wet springs, but it is a frequent culprit of poisoning cattle so it is worth looking out for. Poisonous plant density and the availability of non-poisonous forage species both influence the risk of livestock poisoning.
Nitrate poisoning is a condition which can occur any year, but drought years may increase the risk. Some plants accumulate nitrates at a higher rate than others.
If one is using feeds such as oats, pearl millet, corn, sorghum and sudangrass, it is a good idea to test for high nitrates. High nitrate conditions can be found in both harvested feeds and grazed forages. Testing for nitrate levels in feeds is easy and cheap to do by sending a sample to a lab.
Hopefully, Wyoming won’t have a growing season drought this year and producers won’t need their drought plan. Rest assured, if one doesn’t come this year, a drought is coming sooner or later.
Barton Stam is the University of Wyoming Rangelands Extension Educator based in Hot Springs County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.