Managing pastures in drought

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Farm Forum

Drought is an ever-present threat to grazing operations throughout South Dakota and always seems to be ‘just around the corner’. The reality is that we’ve experienced some level of drought conditions in 43 of the last 120 years according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We should not be surprised by drought, but long and short term drought conditions are sometimes predictable, sometimes not.

Take for instance the similar current drought situations hear in northeast South Dakota and in regions of western South Dakota. Back in January, the South Dakota NRCS Grassland Drought Conditions map models showed most of the state’s pastures were in a fairly ‘normal’ condition. However, northeast South Dakota had several pockets that were dry at the time with only about 70-85% of normal production. The model predicted that by July northeast South Dakota would recover well and be at about 95-100% normal forage production.

The March 1 maps were similar, but with an expanded area of the northeast predicted to drop to around 85-95% of normal production. The Black Hills and the west were looking good and optimism was high. By March 15 the actual conditions in the northeast had worsened and production estimates were down across the region with additional areas showing a decrease in predicted July forage production. The Black Hills and the west were expected to hold at near 100% production.

Early and mid-April saw little change, while widespread late April rains created optimism in the May model, showing recovery of May pasture production to nearly 100% in almost all areas of South Dakota. There was a dramatic improvement to the July peak production estimate for the northeast back to nearly 100%. The Black Hills and the west continued to look very good as well.

Mid-may showed worsening conditions in the northeast as well as a scattering of below normal predictions for July peak forage production across the state, with the northeast region again the area with the driest predictions. Late May rains once again indicated recovery for the June 1 conditions in all areas except for Day, Marshall, and Roberts counties. However, predicted below normal conditions for July peak production of about 90% were now more prevalent in the west, the first real indicator of things to come.

Now here we are in early July 2016. The northeast part of the state from McPherson through Deuel Counties are in various states of drought, with July pasture production predictions below 75% of normal in many areas in that 11 county region. Conditions are worsening in the west as well, with July production estimates hovering around 80-85% of normal from Butte down to northern Fall River County.

The U.S. Drought Monitor now shows nearly all of western South Dakota in abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions, with the Black Hills region in severe to extreme drought. Here in the northeast, we range from severe drought in Roberts County to abnormally dry as far south as Kingsbury and west toward the James River Valley.

While the situation here in the northeast is concerning, we did have several indicators that pointed to the possibility of a drier than normal summer and less than ideal forage production potential. Early rains fueled good growth of cool season grasses and created optimism, but early heat, late frosts, and lack of rain have now combined to put a damper on warm season plant growth, creating a situation where some pastures have abundant mature and dry (and thus less palatable) cool season grass biomass while offering little warm season plant growth going forward.

If you haven’t done so, it is time to check pastures and make a game plan for the remainder of the summer. While we may pick up some showers here in early July, it is unlikely that our July and August forage production will recover to normal production thus creating a situation where pastures can become ‘overstocked’ very quickly.

Every pasture is different, but no pasture will benefit from heavy mid-summer stocking during drought conditions. Warm season plants simply will not have an opportunity to recover as the livestock continuously graze and re-graze. If drought conditions persist, consider reducing stocking rates, early weaning, or supplemental feeding as options for ensuring pasture health.

Upcoming events/tours

July 19: Society for Range Management Excellence in Range Management / Conservation Stewardship Program joint tour. Dean and Connie Hunt Ranch and Ray Effling Ranch near Gary/Altamont, Deuel County, SD. This will be an afternoon/evening tour beginning at the Hunt pastures at 1 p.m. and Effling pastures at 5 p.m. Meal provided at Effling’s. More details/information to come. For information or to register contact Amy Engels amy.engels@sd.usda.gov

July 29: South Dakota Grassland Coalition / South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association Happy Cow Bus Tour. Blue Bell (Herb and Bev Hamman) Ranch near Clear Lake, Deuel County and the SDSU Cow/Calf Unit near Brookings. Meeting at 8 a.m. at Watertown Best Western Ramkota. Free to current SDGC and SDCA members. Lunch included. For more information or to register contact: Lyle Perman at 605-649-7629 or Judge Jessop at 605-280-0127 (optional social gathering Thursday evening, July 28, at the Ramkota).