Late summer pasture management

Farm Forum

I suppose it’s true that all good things must end. By most measures, this has been a good – if not great – summer for pasture production. Many were stressing caution when planning for 2013 grazing on the heels of the 2012 drought. In many cases range and pasture managers appeared to heed the warnings of climatologists as they adjusted their herds and operations. Most producers made small adjustments in their feeding, turnout, and grazing programs. Others took more decisive action and implemented plans that included, total pasture rest, herd culling, or securing additional grazing acres.

It’s nice to be writing about the tragedy of a second year drought that never happened… but the lessons learned in regard to whole ranch planning and drought planning are as valid now as they were a few months ago. If you were one of those who found yourself scrambling for options, you may want to send up a prayer of thanks and then take some steps to ensure you don’t get ‘caught’ next time. SDSU Extension will be offering a series of 1 day drought planning seminars in early October. Although these courses will be taught primarily on the western side of the state, they will be open to all. Please contact me here at the Watertown Regional Extension Center if you are interested in more information.

Management decisions over the next two months will have implications on range health for this fall and winter as well as next spring. Take care to evaluate your goals and to consider your options with your late season grazing strategies. Remember, root health and soil health are key to sustaining and improving your pasture productivity.

Our grasslands are complex and it is easy to become confused if you’ve got a mix of warm and cool season native species, cool season exotic grasses, and forbs. I suggest starting with a simple goal of overall pasture health. Manage for leaf area and photosynthesis throughout the remainder of the growing season. All too often, producers tend to push pastures harder in late summer and fall, compromising pasture management goals because of other operational pressures such as fall harvest. This can lead to overutilization of the pastures and negative impacts on desirable plants. Having a plan can help you prioritize your work load accordingly.

This year, our warm season species are a bit late in their growth cycle, but by the time you read this most (if not all) will have set seed. While these plants are still green and growing allow them the opportunity to retain health by not removing more that 50% of the leaf area. These plants need a chance to pump energy back into the root systems before winter.

Our cool season species such as brome and bluegrass will also be actively growing again soon. Although not as effective as heavy spring grazing, intense fall grazing can be a strategy to set these species back if you are managing primarily for warm season species. But, realize that intense fall grazing may negatively impact organic matter, standing structure, and snow catch. Fall cover and litter are also important factors in the ability to intercept and retain spring precipitation – which is the most critical moisture we receive during the growing season.

Lack of snow cover can allow deeper freezing of soils, negatively impacting other management goals. An example would be securing as much snow cover as possible for leafy spurge beetle larval health or as a source to fill wetlands, dams, and dugouts in the spring. Once plants stop active growth, it is very easy to remove more vegetation than you intended to. Plants also loose a significant amount of mass over winter simply through breakoff and wind erosion. So practice caution with fall grazing strategies.

It is difficult to address all management scenarios in a short article. The bottom line is that if you can hide a football in your pastures when the cattle leave in the fall, you will be well on your way to adequate vegetation retention for ecological health. Don’t forget the birdsÉa football is about the size of a pheasant or grouse. If these species are using your pastures, you can feel confident you’re on the right path. The beauty of managing for the birds is that you are managing the pasture well and you’ll see positive results in your cattle health and performance. Remember that our wildlife had a tough spring and the broods are comparatively young. These birds will need adequate cover for winter shelter and spring nesting to rebound. The continued loss of grasslands in this region is a real concern, so give the birds a hand if you can.

Upcoming events

· S.D. Grazing School: September 10-12, Chamberlain, SD. Hands-on interactive school for producers wanting to improve their grazing strategies.

· Prescribed Burn Planning Workshop: September 24, Pickstown, SD. 1/2 day workshop is designed for producers interested in learning about fire utilization. Focus will be on eastern red cedar control in rangelands.

· Patch Burn Grazing Workshop: Sept. 25-26, Gary, SD. Combination of ranch tours, talks, and advice on landowner/agency partnerships and utilizing fire and grazing rotations for grassland health, livestock and wildlife production.

· Drought Workshops: Early October. Call Laura Edwards (Aberdeen Regional Center) or Pete Bauman (Watertown Regional Center) if interested.