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Tips For A Drought-Ready Grazing Playbook

Editors’ Note: Julie Elliott lives in northeast Colorado so she’s got a lot of experience managing for drought. In the first article in this series, she gave us the tools to look at our pastures to see what we have and how drought has impacted them. In this article she gives us some tips for prepping for drought before it happens so that we can make it through successfully.

Like a good football team, graziers need a playbook that has been well thought out long before they hit the field. Think of it as a football playbook. It has scenarios using different combinations of quarters, position on the field and score to make play decisions. The quarterback has assembled a great deal of knowledge. The playbook and knowledge gives him the ability to adapt in the “heat of the moment” and get the play going before the play clock runs out.

Your playbook starts with the questions that every grazing decision will be weighed against: If I do X will it help me to: a) increase the number of new plants, b) leave plants tall enough to capture snow and slow down wind speeds at the ground, c) increase the amount of litter cover and d) decrease bare ground?

A well designed playbook helps us objectively think about the past and current weather and pasture conditions so we can make grazing decisions. Perhaps we can start with the the take half leave half approach? Unfortunately, there is an inherent problem with this philosophy. It deceives a person into believing that there is always something for livestock to graze. Is that true?  Is there really never a time when cattle should no longer be in a pasture?

The other trouble with take half, leave half is that there is not an adjustment for grass species and height. If the grass is 12” tall, can we take half? Maybe, depending on the species, the time of year and what other cover is out there. But, what if the plants are only 2-3” tall and two feet apart? Is it o.k. to graze those 1 to 1.5 inches?

Take half/leave half is a recipe for disaster in a drought. In drought conditions, we cannot count on any set amount of forage. Often there is not a half to take. The other trouble is we do not know what the total is until the end of the growing season. By then it is a bit late to determine half, unless we are just dormant season grazing

Any time we graze during the growing season, we must properly anticipate how much supply we will have and what the demand will be. The trick is, anticipating how much grass will grow and then making a plan for the livestock demand that is significantly less than forage supply. NRCS, Extension or private range consultants can help you determine how much grass you might reasonably expect in the coming year.

Now, our playbook will also include an evaluation of the situation we find ourselves in. While football teams are looking at the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents, graziers are looking at the conditions of their pastures. This playbook needs to include as many conditions as you can think of. Here’s a list of conditions to get you started:

In your playbook, include information on when the bulk of annual precipitation comes and when most of the plant growth occurs for the grasses on your ranch. Most of your plant growth occurs in June and July? If so, then rain that comes after ~July 15 will result in big seed heads waving high in the breeze, not in leaves and forage for livestock. Additionally, plants that were already grazed will not put on significant regrowth after July 15.

Creating a ranch playbook with conditions, dates and actions is an essential part of drought planning. Has your ranch had at least one, or two, full growing seasons of near average moisture? If not, the pounds of forage demanded by the animals needs to be substantially less than the expected pounds of forage supply. When you walk your range, are you seeing a lot of bare ground? Remember, bare ground heats up faster, evaporates more moisture, soaks in water more slowly, and is more likely to wash or blow than ground that is covered. The more litter cover we have, the faster our range will recover, so you’ll want your playbook to consider these things.Drought may also have severely stressed your grasses so they don’t have the mass of roots under them that they should, or the normal amount of energy stored in the plant bases. In this case grazers need to make sure they leave enough of the grass that grows this year to feed the root system and replace lost energy storage. When the leaf volume is reduced, either due to overgrazing or drought, root growth and replacement is reduced or stopped. Smaller root systems lead to plants that are less capable of recovering from drought or grazing. If the plant cannot make enough food, it will burn the roots for energy

Ranchers, the play clock is ticking. A decision has to be made before the play clock runs out. If the play is not in motion before the play clock runs out, the penalty we pay is far higher than 5 yards. We may force a change in plant communities resulting in a lower livestock carrying capacity. This is a huge penalty that will last for years, or maybe even decades. By creating your playbook, and sticking with it, you have a much better chance of winning the game.

Drought and planning and working through it is an ongoing task for our On Pasture readers. We’ll be sharing more useful planning tools in upcoming articles.

Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.

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