Editors’ Note: This article is the first in a series about managing through and after drought. This one is all about the importance of pasture walks to set yourself up for making the best grazing management decisions by paying attention to the right things, and then thinking about them as you plan. While your vegetation or the scale of your operation may be different, the steps and ideas about how to look at your pasture are useful everywhere.
The series was adapted from presentations Julie Elliott has given in the last few years called “Planning for Extreme and Extended Drought on the Farm and Ranch.” To watch and listen to her Garden City, Kansas talk via Adobe Connect, click here.
Drought happens. In fact, according to long-term records, we receive 75% or less of long-term cumulative average precipitation about half of the time in the semi-arid west. So really, we should expect drought as much as we expect a good or average year. But for graziers, precipitation is only part of the story. It is certainly the driver of drought and of drought recovery. Yet, it is the way we manage during and after a drought that tells the story of whether or not the land, plants and our operations will recover and thrive.
We need to know first where we are and where we’re going. The only way to know if and how drought is impacting you, and what you need to do about it, is to go out and walk the range and take a good, close look. This doesn’t mean drive by at 55 mph, or even drive through the pastures on the trail. If we really want to know what is out there we need to stop the pickup, get out, and walk around. We need to look for these things:
Presence and Density of Plants
Dr. Roy Roath (Colorado State University) says “Acres don’t feed cows; GRASS feeds cows.” So how much grass is here?
Now, we are walking, remember? Even on foot however, we need to be careful not to make our judgments based on looking across the range. This always gives a false impression of how much grass is present. When we look down, we get a much clearer picture of how much grass we have.
Here is a perfect example of the across view versus down view. See the spot in the center of the picture below?
It’s the same area in this picture taken looking downward.
Looking across this pasture (below) we can tell it isn’t stellar, but it might have potential. A person could think that it will be ready for cows in another month.
Looking down gives us a different story. Not only can we tell there isn’t much grass, but now we can tell what kind of grass is there. On the bottom right are a couple tufts pulled out, so we know it’s not a healthy perennial plant. It’s 6-weeks fescue, an annual, locally called ‘spit-out grass.’ Something that gets spit out is not going to feed any cows.
What looked pretty good when looking across, looks somewhat questionable when looking down, doesn’t it.
What Kind of Grass Do You Have?
Another thing the picture above reminds us is that we need to look at what kinds of grasses are out there. It’s not so important that you know all the names of the plants. However, you do need to know which ones are tasty and when they are tasty. Likewise, you need to know which ones are not tasty – ever.
A very common mistake grazers make is thinking that green is good. That idea is followed by ‘If grass is green, then it is growing’ and ‘livestock can and will eat the growing grass’. Unfortunately, green does not translate into growing. Green equals photosynthesizing, not necessarily growing. Not everything that is photosynthesizing fits the tasty category, and green is sometimes an indicator that things are drastically wrong.
For example, a lot of green cheat grass in the fall may look good, but, though cheat grass is tasty, at only 2 inches it is not forage any more than your shag carpet is. Another example is 6-weeks fescue. It is often called Junegrass because it ripens in June. In the fall, the plants are very short little clumps that almost look like moss. In the spring it will turn yellow-green with roots about 1-2 inches long. But that doesn’t mean it’s edible. Another name for it is “spit-out grass” because that is what the cows do when they get it in their mouths; they spit it out. If something is spit out it not going to feed a cow, or anyone else.
What’s On The Ground?
The next feature to note is what else is, or is not, on the ground. The most important of these are: dead grass plants, bare ground and litter.
Even in the best of conditions, plants die every year. In droughts like those that we have had for the last 2 to 12 years, depending on where you are, those plant losses are even higher. Dead plants will not grow leaves no matter how much rain you pour on them.
Living plants are green when they are growing, so it’s easy to spot the dead ones during the green season. When living grasses are dormant, whether summer or winter, they have a tan color and some species have a red tinge to them as well. When grasses are dead, they have a grey, ashy look (in circle below).
Litter Cover and Bare Ground
Litter is the driver of the grassland system. It protects the soil from wind and water erosion. It keeps the soil cooler, so it stores more moisture. It improves the living conditions for plant roots and microorganisms that feed the plants. All of this helps new plants to get established.
We want to assess how much of the ground is covered by litter and how much of it is bare. Bare ground, like that shown in the picture below, gives a place for seed germination and recruitment. This is good if you want to get some better species started, but it’s bad if you have annuals and other undesirable plants looking for new territory. Bare ground is also a problem because it heats up faster. The hotter the ground is, the less friendly it is to roots or to the microorganisms living in the soil. Active micro-organisms release nutrients. Nutrients feed plants. Once these little micro-organisms die, or go into survival mode, it takes some time for them to reactivate.
Bare ground evaporates more moisture, soaks in water slower, and is more likely to wash or blow than ground that is covered. This becomes a problem for plants as shown in the picture below. Because the leaves on the blue grama have curled over, it’s hard to see that the base of the plant is at about 1.5″ on the tape. But taking a look at this view, that we don’t usually get is important. It shows us that the base of the plant, where some of the energy storage lies, as well as the buds of new growth, is now exposed to the harsh winds, temperature extremes, and freeze drying effect that’s so common during winter on the plains.
As you can imagine, this kind of exposure can make it difficult for plants to survive and thrive. We’ll talk more about the importance of taking care of the roots by caring for what’s above ground in the next part of this Pasture Walk Against Drought series.