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Extension Education: Can Producers Afford to Not Rotationally Graze in a Drought?

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Drought is a common occurrence in the Western U.S. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor published in mid-June, approximately 32 percent of Wyoming was abnormally dry (D0) and another 13 percent was in moderate drought (D1). 

Drought usually limits forage growth potential, creating difficulties like those faced by the couple in the following case study.

The situation

Gerald and Kim’s Wyoming range usually produces enough forage for their herd of 100 cow/calf pairs to have plenty to eat for the summer months. This year, however, there is a drought. 

Like many of their neighbors, Gerald and Kim find themselves deliberating over the health of their range and the economic viability of their cattle operation. 

It looks like the forage will last for three out of the four-month grazing season. 

Gerald and Kim take pride in being good stewards of their forage and land resources. They would rather not sell any of their breeding stock, but leasing pasture or buying hay under current market conditions is not ideal either. 

Gerald and Kim have heard about other grazing strategies but are unsure how these will align with their goals. Before making a decision, they consult with their local university Extension agent and discuss several alternatives.

Option one: Feed through the drought

Since one cow/calf pair consumes approximately 780 pounds of dried forage in a month, approximately 36 tons of hay would be required to feed 100 pairs for a month. 

If good quality alfalfa/grass mix hay is purchased at $200 per ton, this represents a cash outlay of $7,200. The expense of hauling and delivering the hay, as well as costs associated with labor and management, would also need to be taken into consideration. 

For example, if the cost to deliver the hay to the property and later feed it to the cows totaled three dollars per head, then $300 would need to be added to the total cost of the hay. 

Based on these numbers, Gerald and Kim estimate supplementing hay for part of the grazing season represents a total cost of approximately $7,500. This strategy preserves cattle herd dynamics and protects their range from degradation but at a cost. 

Ultimately, the couple must decide if these benefits outweigh the cost of feeding.

Option two: Sell animals in excess of carrying capacity

Depending on the region and time of year, the price of cull animals can vary widely. The local sale barn is often the outlet where excess animals are sold on short notice. 

Drought conditions are often associated with lower cash prices because many operations in the same region may be seeking to liquidate animal inventories at the same time. 

While selling animals is an effective way to generate quick cash flow and reduce the demand on forage resources, it also means rebuilding the herd after the drought subsides. 

If Gerald and Kim sold 25 pairs for $1,200 each, they would receive a cash inflow of $30,000. However, this option would also represent a future loss by reducing the number of calves weaned in the current year and in subsequent years as well.

Option three: Implement rotational grazing

Rotational grazing, a well-documented alternative to extensive season-long grazing, offers several advantages which may benefit Kim and Gerald. By quickly rotating cattle through smaller, subdivided sections of a pasture, this strategy allows more time for grazed areas to rest and regrow. 

While maintaining a conservative stocking rate, the couple could ensure the cattle were not overgrazing some areas and underutilizing other areas. 

Through careful planning, Gerald and Kim may overcome the deficit in their summer forage resources by implementing rotational grazing. Estimating range resources are only producing at about 75 percent of normal this year, Gerald and Kim calculate what the grazing pressure would be if they continued to graze 100 pairs for all four months. 

If the same amount of forage – in pounds – is removed by the cattle under the current conditions, it represents a higher use rate than in normal years, but moving from 25 percent to 33 percent utilization is not so high range degradation is a risk. 

However, they know from experience cattle will not graze the entire pasture at a conservative rate on their own. Fencing would help ensure cattle use all areas of the pasture uniformly, encouraging them to graze non-preferred areas and protecting preferred areas from overgrazing. 

Electric fencing is often used to subdivide pastures, because it is a cheaper and more flexible alternative to using permanent fencing. 

According to estimates made by William Edwards in 2012, costs can range from around $200 per mile for poly wire to $4,700 per mile for high-tensile fence. Barbed-wire fences were quoted at over $7,800 per mile. 

If the water access point is already centrally located in a large pasture, subdividing the area into quarters will provide a basis to begin rotational grazing.

Obviously, a rotational grazing strategy represents more management and time commitment, in addition to the cost of materials. The good news is cost-share programs are available for pasture improvement projects, including water development and fence installation, through Gerald and Kim’s local conservation district. 

Gerald and Kim conclude they might be able to maintain rangeland health and preserve their herd dynamics by using a rotational grazing strategy. Electric fences would be sufficient for limiting the movement of cattle within the pasture and could be taken down if they weren’t needed in future years.

Jedidiah Hewlett is the University of Wyoming Extension agriculture and natural resources educator serving Converse County. He can be reached at or 307-358-2417.

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