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Preparing for Drought on Saskatchewan Rangelands

By Rachel Turnquist, BSA, PAg, Forage Extension Specialist

May 2018

Rangeland is land supporting indigenous or introduced vegetation that is either grazed or has the potential to be grazed and is managed as a natural ecosystem. Rangeland includes grassland, grazable forestland, shrubland, pasture land and riparian areas (PCAP 2008). Rangelands are a key resource for grazing livestock in Saskatchewan. Most rangeland in Saskatchewan is in the Dry, Mixed and Moist Grassland and Aspen Parkland ecoregions. This rangeland is suitable mainly for livestock production due to climatic factors such as low annual precipitation or topography and soil limitations. In order to ensure the rangeland resource is available for future generations, sustainable management practices are required. 

Annual precipitation fluctuations are common in Saskatchewan and drought is part of the cycle, however, drought occurrence is unpredictable. Drought can occur when annual precipitation is well below normal, or when it is less than average over a number of consecutive years. Drought stress can be triggered in plants when there is inadequate moisture within the growing season. Drought stress can also be induced by management practices. Rangeland plants respond to drought stress individually, but in general, their metabolic functions slow, growth ceases, and yield reductions occur (Collins et al. 2018).   

Droughts can be distressing or even devastating for farmers and ranchers. The best management tool for drought is preparation and planning. Rangelands that are healthy entering a drought and managed well while in a drought will recover sooner than rangelands that are unhealthy entering a drought (Manske 2014). Having a drought plan in place prior to the event will aid in effective decision making when drought occurs.

Manage for Healthy Rangelands

Plant Community

There are many diverse plant communities on rangelands in Saskatchewan. Plant communities vary across the landscape in relationship to changes in factors such as soil type, precipitation and temperature. Within those plant communities are a variety of different grasses, sedges, forbs, shrubs and trees. Grasses generally dominate the production and forage consumed by livestock. In the spring, grass begins to grow by using stored energy and the first tillers are produced from dormant buds near the soil surface. There is little storage carbohydrate present in grass roots. Most of the carbohydrates used to initiate new tillers are stored in the lower stem bases. The tillers continue plant growth through photosynthesis to synthesize energy from the sun and carbon dioxide. This energy is used for plant growth, maintenance and reproduction (Bruynooghe & MacDonald 2008). With little carbohydrate storage in the roots, it is critical to leave enough stubble behind to retain sufficient storage carbohydrates and basal leaf area for the support of regrowth (Collins et al. 2018). 

Approximately 50 to 70 percent of annual leaf and stem production by grass plants should be left behind as a metabolic resource for the plant (Holechek et al. 2011).  This ensures energy for plant aboveground and belowground regrowth, and protection from environmental stress. It also allows for litter to be left behind for soil protection and hydrological cycling. Plants that are left with sufficient metabolic reserves will likely have long, healthy root systems (Holechek et. al. 2011).  Healthy roots access water and nutrients deep in the soil profile. Roots live for short periods of time and are constantly being replaced.  Replacement rates vary with species, but range from 20 to 50 percent of the total root system each year (Bruynooghe & MacDonald 2008). When roots die, they are converted to soil organic matter by soil microorganisms. Soil organic matter stabilizes soil aggregates and supports water infiltration, storage and nutrient cycling. 

Grazing intensity affects root growth and replacement. Individual grass species respond uniquely, but in general, root growth is unimpeded when 50 percent or less of the above ground biomass is removed.  When more than 50 percent of the above ground biomass is removed, the grass responds by stopping root growth for a period of time. If grazing pressure continues, the roots are not replaced and eventually grow only close to the soil surface. Thus, they are unable to reach nutrients and water deep in the soil profile. In years of decreased annual precipitation, plants rely on that subsoil moisture for growth.  Managing for healthy pastures with deep roots ensures the best preparation possible for when drought occurs. 

Manage for Adequate Litter

Litter is the residue left behind from previous year’s growth. Litter supports snow and water capture and retention, which is especially important when plants are under drought stress.    

Figure 1. Low litter levels (right) capture less snow.

Increased grazing intensity reduces the ability of grasslands to capture snow (see Figure 1, Willms & Chanasyk 2006). When snow melts in the spring, or when rain falls throughout the growing season, water has the potential to move quickly across the landscape. The dead plant material acts as a physical barrier slowing down water. With the water speed reduced, it has a chance to infiltrate into the soil.  When there is little or no litter, there is no physical barrier and water can quickly run off. When moisture is less abundant, litter can efficiently capture what little snow or rainfall there is. This makes more moisture available for plant growth. 

Having litter on the surface also helps regulate temperature of the soil below. The colour of litter is pale yellow to grey and will reflect solar radiation as opposed to exposed dark soil, that will absorb solar radiation and increase soil temperature. This is especially useful later in the season. A cooler soil will reduce evaporative losses of moisture, making more available to pasture plants. With more consistent moisture available, rangelands with adequate litter levels will have higher forage production (Willms et al. 1993).

Table 1. Average Litter Levels for Native Grassland Communities Rated Healthy, Unhealthy and Healthy with Problems.

Ecoregion Ecosite
Healthy with problems





Dry Mixed Grassland
















Mixed Grassland


















Sandy Loam





















(PCAP 2008)

To ensure rangelands are healthy prior to entering a drought, they require periodic and adequate rest to regrow, replace roots and accumulate adequate litter levels. For example, healthy pastures in a loam ecosite in the Mixed Grassland of Saskatchewan should have more than 390 lbs/acre of litter on the surface (Table 2). This measurement can easily be taken while regularly monitoring rangeland.

Drought Preparation Plan

Plants respond to drought by slowing growth. If drought stress is severe, growth ceases and plants go dormant. This significantly decreases forage that is available for grazing. Over time, forage yield fluctuates in response to precipitation fluctuations. It is important in drought years to recognize yield losses early and remove grazing pressure to prevent excessive plant utilization. It is necessary to ensure residual plant material is left behind to trap snow and capture rain. It is also important to remove grazing pressure to prevent overgrazing of regrowth and removal of plant growing points. Having a plan in place prior to drought will help mitigate some of the damage that can occur because of drought.

Every farm and ranch has a unique set of circumstances/resources and a unique set of goals. Therefore, it is important to have a drought plan specific to each operation. Preparation in years when annual precipitation is normal or above normal is the best action that can be taken to withstand the detrimental effects of drought. Prior to drought, considerations to help prepare may include:

  • Maintaining healthy pastures that receive adequate rest and have adequate litter.
  • Considering a flexible herd composition by including yearlings.
  • Developing a drought reserve pasture by resting one pasture for an entire year (Brummer 2017).

Production risk and market risk are both affected by drought. Production risk happens because there is less forage available for livestock, so production is limited. Market risk happens when a majority of producers react with the same response at the same time, such as holding on to livestock for too long and all destocking at the same time. This can flood local markets and decrease prices (National Drought Mitigation Center 2012). Every decision contemplated for drought planning will come with a cost that is unique to the operation. Calculate, compare and evaluate decisions to determine what the best choice is. While in drought, some options may include:

  • Selling early to avoid reduced prices and have more forage available for the remaining herd.
  • Culling more cows than normal.
  • Weaning earlier as dry cows have lower feed requirements than lactating cows (Brummer 2017).
  • Purchasing or acquiring alternative feed such as crop residues, greenfeed, silage, tame pasture or hay.

Take time to consider farm options. Stress levels can be very high for farmers and ranchers while in drought. Having a plan set out in writing prior to drought can help mitigate some of that stress. To put a plan together:

  • Prepare the plan in document form.
  • Involve everyone that is impacted by the plan. 
  • Set critical dates for implementing plan decisions. 

Setting critical dates is an essential part of the drought preparation process. When dates are determined prior to drought occurrence, it prevents the rancher from being surprised or overwhelmed when the time comes to implement the actions.  

Finally, add a post-drought plan to restore operations. The priorities after drought are to restore hydrologic cycling and plant vigor so that animal numbers can be restored. The timeline for restoration will depend on severity of the drought, but regular monitoring can be used to evaluate recovery. 

Drought is a common occurrence in Saskatchewan and can severely impact the vigor and productivity of rangelands. Understanding the way rangelands function is key to managing for healthy pastures.  Healthy rangelands, which can only be achieved during the good years, along with a written plan prepared before drought occurs is the best strategy to mitigate the effects of drought.

Abouguendia, Z.M., Coupland, R.T. (1985). Drought and Saskatchewan rangeland: A management guide. Saskatoon, SK. Saskatchewan Research Council
Brummer, J. (2017). Rangeland drought management. AGRI 635 Integrated Forage Management. Colorado State University.
Bruynooghe, J., Macdonald, R. (Ed.s) (2008). Managing Saskatchewan rangeland (3rd ed.). Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Collins, M., Nelson, C. J., Moore, K.J., Barnes, R.F.(Eds.) (2018). Forages: An introduction to grassland agriculture (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ. John Wiley & Sons.
Holechek, J. L., Pieper R. D., Herbal C. H. (2011). Range management. Principles and practices (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Education, Inc.
Manske, L.L. (2014). Biogeochemical processes of prairie ecosystems (2nd ed.) Dickinson, ND. North Dakota State University.
National Drought Mitigation Center. (2012). Managing drought risk on the ranch: A planning guide for Great Plains ranchers. Retrieved from 
Saskatchewan PCAP Greencover Committee. (2008). Rangeland health assessment: Native Grassland and Forest. Regina, SK: Prairie Conservation Action Plan.
Willms, W.D., McGinn, S.M., Dormaar, J.F. (1993). Influence of litter on herbage production in the mixed prairie. Journal of Range Management, 46:320-324.
Willms, W.D., Chanasyk, D.S. (2006). Grazing effects on snow accumulation on rough fescue grasslands. Rangeland Ecology and Management, 59:400-405

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