Preparing for spring, Pastures require consideration prior to grazing
Coming off several years of drought, grass reserves are low across the state, but winter moisture has provided some optimism.
UW Extension Educator Dallas Mount says, “Pastures are in good shape, so far. Things are looking good heading into the 2014 growing season.”
UW Extension Sustainable Management of Rangeland Resources Educator Barton Stam adds, “The current year’s precipitation is the most important thing for pasture production.”
When looking at the production of pasture grass, Stam emphasizes that spring precipitation is the most important consideration for producers.
“In most cases, previous years of drought have little to no impact on the current year’s production,” he says. “There is research from Fort Keogh, Mont. and from Mike Smith at UW showing that it is critical to watch the current year’s precipitation.”
For many Wyoming locations, precipitation in late March, April and May is the most important for growth.
“Those dates will change a little bit depending on the location within the state,” Stam says. “For example, early precipitation may be more important in Thermopolis than it is in Laramie because of the elevation differences.”
At the same time, the variation of plant species at different elevations also influence when the timing of precipitation is most important.
“The main thing is that producers must have local data for their pastures for the spring months,” Stam comments.
Mount says that producers should consider when plants grow in deciding when to graze.
“The time of year that is most damaging to plants is during the rapid growth window,” he explains. “It is most damaging to graze during that time.”
As a result, producers should consider when the plants in their pastures are in their rapid growth period and to avoid repeated grazing during that time.
“Most producers are probably looking at mid-May to mid-June as their rapid growth window,” he notes.
“If someone has a pasture they think may have been hit too hard last year, they might consider delaying turnout this year,” Mount says. “I would advise delaying turnout until after seeds set or after the killing frost.”
Stam echoes, “There is quite a bit of data that shows, until we get seedstock elongation, the plants are pretty resilient.”
If temperatures are cool and moisture is available, regrowth can occur.
“However, temperature, moisture and regrowth are really variable from year to year,” he says.
For example, in 2011, the cool, moist spring delayed the process of green-up. In 2012, however, plants grew quickly.
Stam says, “The pattern of grazing would ideally follow the pattern of how fast we are warming up and drying out.”
However, with producers who lease Forest Service and BLM pastures, that timing is sometimes difficult to accomplish.
“Producers don’t always have the flexibility in dates,” he notes.
Stam also cautions producers to watch the composition of their pastures, paying attention to poisonous plants.
“There may be some issues with species like larkspur or death camas,” he says.
Often, death camas is one of the first green plants to emerge in the spring. After a long winter of consuming dried out feed and hay, livestock often seek out lush, green plants and may consume poisonous plants.
“The timing of rains will really bring up poisonous plants in some years,” Stam says. “Some years, it looks like we have a flower garden in our pastures. While the larkspur and lupine look pretty, we can run into issues with cattle.”
Larkspur is the most frequent cause of death in livestock from poisonous plants.
“We can help alleviate poisonous plant impact by having proper mineral supplements and watch when we go into certain pastures,” Stam comments.
Mount notes that the economic considerations behind pasture use are going to be increasingly important this year.
“Especially in those areas that are close to Nebraska, pasture values have shot up,” he says. “In some areas in Nebraska, some producers have paid $50 per cow month for pasture.”
While not expected to be as high in Wyoming, Mount says pasture values could reach prices as high as $30 per cow month.
“The interesting thing is, at some point, the economic value of summer grass is going to exceed the return to producers,” he comments.
The cow/calf production system in the West has been built around cheap summer grass, Mount notes.
“With the increasing expense of summer grass, we have to question our production system,” he explained. “While cheap grass is still present in some parts of the state, we might face expensive pasture in others.”
Utilizing unit cost of production, Mount encourages producers to look at how much cows cost to run.
“When I run cow budgets, it is hard for me to get under $1,200 to $1,300 per cow per year in terms of expenses,” he says. “My challenge to producers is to know their numbers and know their competitive advantage.”
In some cases, Mount ventures that it may be more advantageous to sell cattle and run someone else’s cows or lease the ranch’s summer grass.
“Every ranch has a competitive advantage, whether that is cheap summer grass, cheap winter feed or something else,” Mount explains. “Ranchers need to know what their competitive advantage is and exploit that.”
Over the year
Livestock distribute themselves over pastures differently depending on the time of year, increasing the challenges associated with grazing.
“As we get later in the season when it starts to get hot and dry, the distribution of livestock changes,” Barton Stam, UW Extension sustainable management of rangeland resources educator, says. “Earlier in the year when it’s cooler, the animals tend to spread themselves out more.”
However, during the warmer summer months, livestock tend to congregate in areas near shade and water.
“We can run into utilization issues later on in the year,” Stam comments.