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Western drought: Conditions threaten producers with potential impacts on grazing season

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Western producers are facing a continued damaging drought as they head towards this year’s grazing season, leaving many worried about managing their pastures.

On April 6, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) BeefWatch podcast welcomed UNL Extension Beef Educator Ben Beckman to discuss the impacts drought can have on perennial pastures.

“We are heading into spring already depleted this year,” he says. “As plants start to grow, they’re going to be struggling for moisture and utilizing whatever precipitation they have.” 

Plants during drought 

As producers in the West continue to receive less and less precipitation, plants are unable to maintain their photosynthesis process and store energy, notes Beckman.

“When plants are not provided with the proper amount of water to fuel photosynthesis, it’s a major stressor on the plant,” he says.

“The stomata on plants have to start closing down when there isn’t enough precipitation,” Beckman adds. “Photosynthetic capabilities of the plant slow down because every time the plant has to use energy to photosynthesize, it has to open up pores in the leaves to get CO2.”

Plants lose moisture when these pores open, so they have to start closing the pores down in order to retain moisture, he notes. 

“During a drought, plants can’t maintain as much of an infrastructure, so they start to shut down to protect themselves,” Beckman says.

This is when a species will typically go dormant to protect themselves, he notes.

for producers 

Beckman recommends producers pay close attention to pasture moisture levels before grazing livestock. 

“If producers continue to receive small amounts of moisture, they might not get a lot for plant growth, so the longer they leave the plant alone and without stress, the more energy it will be able to pull back, reserve and put into growth,” he says. “This way the plant can do more photosynthesis.”

Beckman refers to the relationship between pasture growth and livestock grazing as a balancing act.

“Producers look at the animal side of maintaining a quality diet, but also protecting their pasture health,” he says.

Beckman says the longer pastures can go without grazing puts growing grasses in a better position, but waiting too long could also harm the animals’ diets. 

“Producers have to walk the tightrope balance of protecting their resources and assets and figuring out what works best for their operation,” he says.

Long-term drought effects

Beckman acknowledges the long-term damages of grazing pastures too early during a drought.

“Plants have to pull from their energy reserves in order to regrow after a grazing period,” he says. “This is why rest after grazing is really important for maintaining pasture health.”

Adding a major stressor, such as drought, on top of this regrowing period forces the plant to pull all of its energy reserves out in order to stay alive and regrow after the stress period passes, Beckman says. Plant death will occur if this continues too long.

“In any case, we are decreasing the amount of productivity we see in those plant species. It might take them quite a long time to recover and build up those energy reserves, vitality and vigor enough to get back to pre-drought productivity levels if we stress them too hard,” he says. 

Beckman urges producers to let their pastures recover as the region heads toward another dry season.

“If producers put too much stress on plants, it will sometimes take years for recovery to get the pasture back to normal,” he continues. “If producers don’t keep this in mind, they may over graze again and get into this viscous cycle where they are continually putting too many animals out even though the pasture hasn’t fully recovered.”

Kaitlyn Root is an editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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