Winter grazing considerations
As the region nears the end of February, winter still has a ways to go in Wyoming. Although, this winter has been very open for grazing, which has been helpful given the high cost of harvested feeds and a short supply of grazeable forages.
In terms of range management, plants are very much still in dormancy. As producers continue with winter grazing, management considerations should be focused on animal performance as well as sustainable range and pasture management.
Most of the grazing forages will be below the minimum nutritional requirements of the livestock throughout the winter. Forage testing can be a useful tool for figuring out how much of the livestock’s nutritional requirements need to be supplemented, which is fairly inexpensive and easy to do.
Alternatively, there are viable strategies for grazing with little to no supplementation, such as protein. Usually, these strategies involve adjusting calving or lambing dates and accepting some decrease in body condition score.
Animal distribution is frequently an issue especially on large allotments. The 2021 growing season was dismal and forage supply is limited in many areas. On most large allotments or pastures there are usually places where livestock spend less time. These areas can be useful for extending the grazing season if producers can successfully adjust livestock distribution. Supplements can be very useful for accomplishing changes in livestock distribution, especially when used with herding and educating livestock about where supplement is located.
Moving into very early spring, it is recommended for producers to keep an eye out for poisonous plants. Species native to Wyoming such as death camas, low larkspur and lupine are commonly among the first plants to green up and begin early spring growth. These species are often growing and in their most succulent stages before many of the native and introduced forage species have even begun to grow.
Livestock which have been on harvested feeds, such as hay or dormant forages, may be more prone to grazing any green and growing plant. With an adequate supply of nonpoisonous plants, livestock rarely graze many of the state’s toxic species. Some species, however, such as larkspur, are frequently grazed even when growing with abundant forages.
When turning out previously confined animals onto open pasture, make sure they are full of feed and have had full access to clean water. One great publication for more information on poisonous species is “Plants Poisonous to Livestock in Montana and Wyoming – Considerations for Reducing Production Losses.” This document is available for free on the internet and may be available in the local University of Wyoming Extension office.
Grazing plants which are succulent and nutritious in the spring can also work very much to our advantage.
One example of this is taking advantage of the cheatgrass when it is still young and succulent. Cheatgrass never stays in this stage too long, and some years it feels like it only takes a few minutes for it to mature and put out a seedhead.
Some years, cheatgrass might be useful forage for longer depending on how the temperature warms up and how much precipitation the area gets. Current research is considering how producers can utilize cheatgrass instead of letting it go ungrazed while it gains the competitive ad-vantage every year over more desirable species. It will be tough to eliminate cheatgrass through grazing, but controlling its spread and reducing its prevalence while taking advantage of it for a forage supply is a reasonable strategy. Grazing cheatgrass could be used in a multi-pronged approach that includes chemical and seeding treatments as well for a more effective control strategy.
As Wyoming looks forward to growing season – and cross our fingers for a good one – it will be a good idea to meet with partners, such as agency rangeland management specialists. Spring meetings are a great time to talk about any issues which have come up, discuss grazing rotations and how to best meet the requirements of permits while also running a profitable livestock production business. Range improvements, weed control and monitoring expectations and requirements would also be great topics for this spring meeting. I would also recommend discussion of how the grazing management went the previous year, including what went well and what could be done better.
I was encouraged to hear on a weather podcast this week that perhaps La Niña is weakening, even if only slightly. This should be good news for the region and could increase the chances for a wetter spring than the last two. After the last two dry springs, any possible improvement seems like good news.
Barton Stam is a rangeland Extension educator based in Hot Springs County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.