Drought Worsens

Producers Urged to Plan for Possible Drought-Driven Culling

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
The United States Drought Monitor for the week ending May 17, 2018, shows a large portion of the country anywhere from abnormally dry to in exceptional drought. (Image: USDA)

It may be time to cut cattle stocking rates by as much as 10% in some parts of the Northern Plains.

That news comes as drought conditions that began last year there continue, and many producers are warned to expect reductions in forage production on pasture and rangeland going forward.

"Last year, some producers experienced as much as a 75 percent reduction in forage production on pasture, range and hayland due to the drought," said Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University Extension rangeland management specialist.

In many areas, pasture and rangeland received excess grazing pressure. These pastures may need extra time to recover before producers initiate grazing.

Rick Schmidt, an Extension agent in Oliver County, reported a delay in grass development this spring, compared with 2017. He said it was the result of overgrazing, cool weather and lack of moisture.

"Last year, western wheatgrass had reached the 3 1/2-leaf stage, or grazing readiness, on May 9," he said. "However, this spring, it had only 1 1/2 leaves on May 14."

Grazing before grasses are at the appropriate stage of maturity can cause up to a 60% reduction in forage production. This, in turn, leads to a reduction in recommended stocking rates and/or animal performance.

Grazing readiness for most domesticated pasture in the area (smooth brome grass and crested wheatgrass, for example) is the three-leaf stage. For native range grasses it's at the 3 1/2-leaf stage.

Nearly 90% of North Dakota is experiencing some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"If these conditions continue through May, producers will need to reduce their stocking rates by 10 percent or more," advised Miranda Meehan, Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. "In the event these conditions extend into June, a 20 percent or greater reduction will be needed, depending on severity of drought. Precipitation during these months is critical, as it dictates 80 percent of grass growth in North Dakota."

Making early adjustments to stocking rates will prevent overgrazing and reduce the length of time grass takes to recover, as well as improve the long-term sustainability of livestock operations, the specialists stressed. Overgrazing can have long-term impacts on the entire rangeland plant community, leading to a loss of forage production, changes in plant species composition, soil erosion, weed growth and a reduction in the soil's ability to hold water.

Producers should have a plan in place to reduce stocking rates if overgrazing occurred in 2017 and drought persists in 2018, the specialists added. The quickest solution is culling, however, those decisions will be more difficult for producers who already cut herds last year, when drought conditions began.

North Dakota producers are far from alone in their concerns over forage conditions and a lack of moisture. The U.S. Drought Monitor map, for the week ending May 17, 2018, reported almost half the country as being anywhere from "abnormally dry" to in "exceptional drought." Those states with some areas considered in exceptional drought (D4) included Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and California.

Victoria Myers