The majority of North Dakota has experienced a precipitation deficit this growing season, with much of the western and central portion of the state receiving less than 50% of normal precipitation and some areas receiving only 20% to 30% of normal since April 1.
The current U.S. Drought Monitor reflects these conditions, with approximately 27% of the state classified as D0 or “abnormally dry” and 36% classified as D1 or “moderate drought.” This lack of rain has impacted forage production across the state negatively, according to North Dakota State University Extension livestock specialists.
“The state was fortunate to receive above-normal precipitation last fall, creating ample subsoil moisture for great spring green-up and pasture growth,” says Miranda Meehan, NDSU Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. “However, due to the current dry conditions, forage production will start to decline at an expected rate of 30% or greater, with production declining even further if conditions persist. Just as important, if conditions stay dry, plants will mature and become rank, decreasing the quality of feed for much of the grazing season.”
Producers must have trigger dates identified for making critical decisions on their operations in the event of a drought.
“In terms of grazing management, July 1 is one of the most important dates for livestock producers in North Dakota,” says Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist. “By July 1, 80% of forage has been produced on most range and pasturelands, with the exception being areas dominated by warm-season grasses. After July 1, precipitation on cool-season-dominated grasslands will enhance forage quality but will have little impact on production.”
According to research conducted at NDSU’s Hettinger Research Extension Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-Agricultural Research Service Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Mont., a surplus of late-season precipitation in July and August does not increase forage production significantly.
“Now is the time for producers to evaluate available forage and adjust stocking rates,” Meehan says. “Making early adjustments to the stocking rate will prevent overgrazing and reduce the length of time it takes to recover from drought and improve the long-term sustainability of operations.
“Overgrazing can have lasting 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,” she adds.
Rangelands should be evaluated again on Sept. 1 because warm-season grasses have produced the majority of their forage at that time. In addition, producers will be able to complete an assessment of other forage resources available for winter feeding programs, including annual forages and harvested feeds.
Water and forage quality
A number of water and forage quality issues can impact animal health during dry conditions. Producers need to ensure they have enough good-quality water to meet livestock needs based on the type of animal and physiological status.
Alternatives such as installing pipelines, accessing other sources such as rural water or hauling water should be assessed. If water quality is questionable, samples should be collected and sent to a laboratory for analysis. Water testing kits are available through county Extension offices.
“It is important that ranchers have a strategy in place to maintain livestock and grassland health and productivity,” says Janna Block, Extension livestock systems specialist based at NDSU’s Hettinger Research Extension Center. “Some common strategies used to prepare for and deal with drought are increasing the use of purchased feed, leasing additional pasture, converting failed crops planned for grain to hay, temporarily placing livestock in a dry lot, early weaning or destocking. However, due to the effects of COVID-19 on markets, ranchers may have to use different strategies to respond to drought.”
Also with a prolonged drought, forage quality declines because new green growth will be limited. Crude protein, phosphorus and vitamins become deficient, impacting milk production and compromising herd health.
Typically, cows will lose body condition while calves increase gain as long as the feed supply is not limited, Block says. If the feed supply becomes short, calves also will underperform and a higher rate of open cows becomes prevalent, impacting the 2021 calf crop.
Drought management strategies
No good economic drought management strategies are available that result in a positive economic outcome. All are difficult because they involve higher costs, lower returns or both.
“One of the most difficult and emotional decisions that must be made is the need to cull or relocate a portion or all of the herd,” says Bryon Parman, NDSU Extension agricultural finance specialist. “However, making these decisions early can be advantageous, particularly if drought conditions are widespread.”
Block advises producers to cull unproductive cattle first. Selling cows without calves or that are planned to be culled anyway is a good place to start. Cull cow prices are usually seasonally higher now than in the fall or if significant regional culling occurs due to drought. Pregnancy checking can be done accurately using ultrasound when the fetus is 35 to 45 days of age, and marketing late calvers or open cows will help shorten the calving season and save on feeding costs.
Other candidates for culling should include cows that lost calves, older cows with decreasing productivity and/or cows with bad dispositions or soundness issues, Block says. Producers also should evaluate the number of heifers needed for replacements and consider reducing these numbers if necessary.
Hay prices usually increase quickly as drought conditions worsen, and high shipping costs can be expected if the drought is fairly widespread. As of May 1, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that North Dakota hay stocks were increased by 29% in the last year. However, hay stocks may not be evenly distributed across the state, which can cause an imbalance in price for different areas of the state.
Corn and other feed grains may be an economically viable alternative to supplement or replace short forage supplies.
“From an economic perspective, typically a mixed management strategy is best during periods of drought,” says Tim Petry, NDSU Extension livestock economist. “A mixed management strategy may include deep culling, keeping some cattle on available pasture, feeding grain in a lot or hauling cattle to a new location.”
If the drought is shorter or less severe, hauling cattle to a new location may not be the best choice because it induces stress on the animals, and they likely will have to be sent a great distance. In this case, supplemental feeding of grains and hay and reducing the number of pastured animals likely would be the most economical choice.
However, if the drought is prolonged, the best option may be to relocate a large percentage of the herd because the shipping costs of the cattle would be much smaller relative to costs of buying and shipping hay and grain.
“Producers need to consider the goals of their ranch and the short- and long-term needs of their families, in addition to their current financial position,” Meehan says. “It is important to have a thorough understanding of ranch resources to balance rangeland health with livestock production. There is no ‘one size fits all’ plan for drought management.”
Visit the NDSU Extension drought page (https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/drought) for additional resources.