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Volesky: Grazing management is critical this year following drought

Producers will need to be on top of their game to manage grazing land stressed from the drought, according to a University of Nebraska rangeland grazing specialist. 

“Combining drought stress with overgrazing can have a negative impact on grass production,” Jerry Volesky explained. “Drought stress and grazing stress over consecutive years really hinders long-term productivity of those pastures. It could take five to 10 years to get it back to the level of productivity it was in prior to the combination of drought and overgrazing.” 

Addressing pastures

Producers with drought stressed pastures should consider delaying turnout, reducing or adjusting stocking rates and leaving residual and litter on the pastures. 

“The amount of residual left behind, which is litter and old plant material, is important because it helps protect the surface. It is similar to cropping,” he explained. “It will really make a difference to pastures that have been grazed short and were bare. It will help keep the moisture down in the soil.”

Volesky said areas that received moisture in April and May will see some benefit in their grazing land. 

“The soil moisture is really low,” Volesky explained. “Basically, the top and sub-soil moisture was depleted from the drought, so a lot of the rain we have received will have to first recharge the soil moisture.” 

“The other factor is it was so cold in April, that everything is really behind,” he continued. “You do see some green now in the grass, but for the time of year, we should be seeing a lot more.”

“The rains that have fallen are a good start to the recovery of those grasses, but they were so stressed from last year that they are not quite as vigorous or up to 100 percent of their health,” he added. “The cold has really set them back.”

Cool season grasses

Volesky expects the growing season for the cool season grasses to be compressed since the cold weather held off early growth. The plants got off to such a late start that they will have to grow more rapidly through the month of May. He said it is likely these grasses will have less productivity and will be shorter this year. They may also develop a seed head in the later stages of their maturity. 

Although the cool season grasses will have the first opportunity to use the moisture in the soil, Volesky said producers shouldn’t be surprised if some weedy species also develop this year. 

“It is very common after a dry year to see some annual weeds crop up,” he said. “That weed seed has just been lying out there waiting for an opportunity to germinate. We may see a lot of annual weeds because the perennial grass species were weakened from the drought. It gives these weeds a competitive advantage.”

If this year is normal, Volesky noted these weedy species will disappear or only be around in limited numbers next year. The perennial species will be more competitive once they recover, he said. 

“If the weedy species can be grazed early, there can be some grazing value to them,” he explained. “It is not worth taking any other action to get rid of them.”

Stocking rates

As severe as the drought was last year, grass production is going to be less even if near average rainfall is received, Volesky stated. 

“Producers may want to stock their pastures lighter this year. I have been suggesting 20 to 30 percent less than normal. It is a safe number based on how severe the drought was,” he said.

Volesky also recommends producers pay close attention to temperature and rainfall between now and June 1.

“If the month of May is well below average in total rainfall, that could indicate we will need to make additional cuts in stocking rate,” he explained. 

Producers may want to consider delaying turnout at least two to three weeks in primary summer pastures. 

“It allows those grasses a chance to get started and begin the recovery process from the drought,” he added. “Most people have a typical turnout date. What I would recommend is making good observations in the pastures to evaluate the amount of grass and new growth that is occurring. Then I would make a decision on how to stock the pasture based on the amount of rain that has fallen, the temperature  and how fast the grass is growing.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..