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The Challenges of Grass and Water in 2017

By: Trevor Lennox, PAg., Regional Forage Specialist, Swift Current

October 2017

The summer of 2017 resulted in some challenges for producers in southern Saskatchewan in terms of grass and water. Good quality water became scarce on some operations as water sources either ran out, or TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) levels increased above a safe level. This resulted in a lot more producers testing their water sources in order to ensure their animals were consuming water of acceptable quality.

The other challenge that many producers faced in 2017 was the reduced hay and pasture yields due to dry conditions. The reduced forage growth forced producers to reduce stocking rates and use alternative feeding systems to help protect pastures and ensures animal requirements were being met. 

From a grass perspective, producers need to be prudent in their current pasture management so next year’s pasture productivity can be maximized. From a pasture management perspective one of the biggest drivers of next year’s productivity is litter carryover. Litter refers to the amount and distribution of dead plant material on a pasture and is an indicator of previous grazing management.  Leaving adequate litter behind is an essential component of a healthy pasture by helping to shade and cool the soil, which reduces evaporation and conserves moisture.  On the contrast, removing every blade of grass will lead to poor litter carryover and overall deterioration of pasture health.

Resist the Urge

Producers need to resist the urge to graze their pastures too heavily this fall.  As much as it is tempting, overgrazing pastures in dry conditions is not worth the loss of production in subsequent grazing seasons.  Leaving sufficient carry-over and allowing sufficient time for plants to recover may be the hardest but most critical grazing management decisions made during dry years.

Many years during an open fall and winter, producers can easily fall into the trap of removing too much litter from their pastures. If dry conditions continue into another year, pastures with low litter carryover will be a lot more vulnerable.

To further illustrate the importance of litter on pastureland, try comparing the surface temperature of an area that is exposed (has no litter) to an area that has heavy litter. Quite often mid-day in June there will be a 10 C difference in temperature on the soil surface from an area that is exposed to one that has excellent litter cover. From a moisture perspective, think of the benefit of keeping the soil cooler. If the soil surface can stay cool, there will be significantly more moisture to grow grass rather than simply lose it to evaporation.

In summary, producers need to realize that over-utilizing their pastures this year can have a significant impact upon the future productivity of their grasslands. As we head into winter, producers also need to continue their diligence in providing the best possible water quality to their livestock. Perhaps some forward planning and testing still needs to be done this fall in order to ensure winter water sources are still of suitable quality for livestock wintering.

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