Periodic drought and feed shortages are part of the livestock scene in Saskatchewan. Take the time to plan for the next dry period as soon as the current one ends. There are three main areas to consider to improve an operation's drought-proofing.
Use seeded pasture to complement native range.
In 1980, the Swift Current Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Station ran 60 cows with calves on three quarters of pasture: 60 per cent native, 40 per cent seeded. The seeded pasture was in three fields: crested wheat, Russian wild rye grass, and Altai wild rye cross seeded with alfalfa. The cattle were rotated from one field to the next. The cows got 34 days of grazing on the native grass and 124 days on the seeded grass. The seeded grass responded with some re-growth whenever there was a little rain.
Seeded forages respond faster, and with less rain, than native range. Having part of the pasture seeded to tame grass legume mixtures pays off in dry years.
Leave some carryover on the native range. In the long run, range with 40 to 50 per cent carry-over will produce more grass and more beef per acre than pasture that is grazed down. The carry-over maintains the higher yielding species in the stand and leaves the roots in better condition. The carry-over also traps more snow for moisture retention.
Graze according to the grass' production calendar. Seeded grasses grow early in the spring, and achieve most of their growth in the first six weeks. Russian and Altai wild rye grasses hold their feed value into the fall. Native pasture does most of its growing in late June and July. Grazing before late June reduces total pasture yield and increases the number of acres required to carry a cow.
Leaving cows out on pasture during an open winter often results in no grass being left in the pasture should spring rains fail.
Fence and water
One of the major problems with using annual cereals for emergency pasture can be a lack of fence and water. If a farm has fields that are regularly seeded to fall rye, consider fencing them and developing a water supply, such as a dugout in a low spot, or installing a pasture water pipeline. Take a look at the new high-tensile fencing and electric systems that can cut fence costs by 40 to 60 per cent.
Fenced fields with water can become an emergency pasture and can also be used in normal years for fall grazing of crop aftermath.
Extra feed supplies are like insurance when you are suddenly faced with feeding cows for a few extra weeks in the spring, or when unable grow enough feed for next winter. Putting up extra in the good years to use when times are tough is a practice that has never gone out of style on cattle operations. Hay shelters prevent storage losses. Silage pits have been opened after 10 to 20 years with the feed still in good condition.
Consider developing irrigated hay land in areas where is feasible. Forty acres (16 hectares) of hay that is not dependent on the weather is like money in the bank.
If a neighbour has saline land or low areas, consider forming an agreement with him/her to seed it to forage and enter into a hay purchasing agreement. This arrangement has been very successful in a number of instances in expanding and stabilizing the feed base for the cattle producer and providing income and soil improvement for the grain producer.