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Saving Money, and Protecting Soil and Forage Health During Drought and High Hay Prices

On Pasture reader Richard Moyer inspired this series of articles with his thoughts on dealing with high hay and fertilizer prices this year. Read that article here. Then read John Marble’s ideas for operations that use less energy and hay overall.

Drought and high hay prices have something in common: responding successfully means taking care of soil and forage health. Here I’ve collected tips and principles from ranchers and On Pasture authors to help you think through what you’re managing for and why. Of course a management plan will make all this more doable, so be sure to check out this week’s article by ranchers whose grazing plans have helped them survive numerous droughts and dry spells.

Start Your Grazing Season With Last Year and This Coming Winter In Mind

The shorter your grass was grazed last year, the slower it will be to get growing this year. With that in mind, Victor Shelton recommends giving those pasture more time before turning your herd in to graze. By letting grass recover and put on some strong growth, you’ll ensure healthier soils and more forage production later in the season.

As an example of what you might do, here’s rancher Ed Blair of Sturgis, South Dakota who is looking at the second consecutive drought year. He has decided to delay the start of grazing this year. “It’s going to green up. The thing people got to watch is that they don’t get out on it too quick,” he says. “We’ll delay a week to ten days. This year, especially, you’ve got to get the grass vegetative, let it get going. If you’ve got good ground cover, you’re going to capture that water when it comes, so you get all the use out of it.”

If you’re worried about hay prices, the result is obvious. You’ll have more forage along with the potential to stockpile and graze longer this fall and winter. The same goes for those struggling with drought.

For more about when to start grazing and what your start and stop grazing heights should be, read Victor’s full article here.

Don’t Let “Spring Fever” Hurt Your Forages

Match Your Stocking Rate to Your Forage

If you’re trying to feed more mouths than your pastures can handle, you’ll end up harming your forage and your soils. And, if you don’t send some of those mouths down the road, you’ll end up paying exorbitant prices to feed them through fall and winter. That’s not a recipe for profit.

This is the time to look very carefully at your stocking rates and consider what you might gain in forage by reducing livestock numbers. Rod Voss, area rangeland management specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Mitchell, South Dakota says, “When you can look at your forage inventory, look ahead, and couple it with stocking to match the situation, you can plan for some flexibility to make rational decisions.”

We’ve been talking a lot about stocking rates this year as part of grazing planning for a successful season. If you haven’t seen it already, “How Much Forage Do I Need?” will give you tools and links to more articles to help you figure out how many animals you can really feed.

And, as you’re doing the math, don’t forget that just because it’s growing doesn’t mean you can graze it all. Maintain good stop grazing heights to ensure healthy regrowth and more productivity.

Let Grasses Recover Before Putting Your Herd Back in a Pasture

Brett Nix, chair of the producer-led South Dakota Grassland Coalition, said he uses grazing principles to guide rotations of cattle through pastures. “We don’t want to take a second bite from a plant after it has started to recover. That means our herd isn’t going to be on any piece of land for more than three to five days. We like to change season of use, too.”

One thing Blair has seen, often more with season-long grazing, is that low areas really get beat up. “If you can rest those, it’s amazing how fast they come back,” he said. “That’s the main thing, you’ve just got to rest your grass. That’s the trouble with season-long grazing is you don’t rest it, you don’t get the ground cover. Then when you do get the rain, you don’t infiltrate as much water, and you don’t have as much grass. It’s important to keep that ground cover so that when you get those big rains, you get a lot of infiltration, and keep the water on the ranch––not running down the ditch.”

For help figuring recovery times, check out Tom Krawiec’s article about using the Magic of Thirteen.

How To Determine Your Recovery Period: The Magic Of Thirteen

Think About What Best Serves You and Your Land for the Long-Haul

Dan Rasmussen’s says he’s looking at less than 50% of his annual forage production thanks to drought year two. Yet he’s paying attention to his environment as he plans for this grazing season. “Does nature want you to keep your cows on pasture ‘til it’s black?” he asks. “That’s not a good idea. Instead, start planning and figuring ways to destock or further destock your herd.

“Then be prepared to bring it back, bring those numbers back. That’s the key to good range management, healthy soil and healthy pastures. It will rain again. And when it rains, if the pastures weren’t grubbed down, if they were in good shape going into the drought, they’re going to come back really quick.”

Well managed rotations are another way to serve your herd and the land, creating resilient grass and soils. South Dakota’s NRCS State Grazinglands Soil Health Specialist Tanse Herrmann says that ranchers with a good rotation and resilient grass and soils will fare better than those who didn’t have ground cover going into winter. “Healthy soils infiltrate rainwater much more quickly than soils with high degrees of disturbance, such as overgrazing,” he says. “Surface protection by plant residues—ungrazed plants—is a critical piece of high functioning soils, even in drought.”

Rancher Charlie Totton agrees. “If you grub all the grass down, it’s going to freeze hard and the snow won’t catch on the land. Your water’s all going to run off in the spring when your snow melts. If you’ve got old dead grass, your ground won’t freeze as hard and then the water all soaks in.”

Totton credits “mob grazing” and good rotations with helping him keep the protective grass cover on his ground while providing plenty of forage for his herd. “We took a section of land and we cut it in half. We gave 200 cows about four acres a day, and went down through there and mob grazed,” he said. “If we just turned the cows out, it would have taken the whole section to summer them. But by making them eat weeds and everything that was growing there, and moving them often, we can almost get by on half as much land. That gives us the other half to dormant graze. Any time you let the roots grow all summer, you’re going to have a better chance next year in a drought, because those plants fed their roots all summer and there’s something out there to catch snow.”

Key Messages

As always, if there are any silver bullets for getting through high prices and low precipitation, they’re simply the same old good grazing principles:

Keep the soil covered.
Match stock to the forage available and don’t overgraze.
Allow forage to recover before regrazing.
Do your homework. Have a grazing plan. It helps you think through what you’re doing and what you need for the season. If you haven’t already, download your free grazing chart here, and read more about how to use it here.

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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