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Forage management during dry conditions

By Terry Kowalchuk Provincial Specialist - Forage Crops

June 2019

With dry conditions persisting in much of Saskatchewan, producers are having to make some tough range and pasture management decisions. In 2018, many areas of the province saw at least a 30 per cent reduction in forage production. Dry, cool conditions in the spring of 2019 have further depressed forage yields. At the time of writing, much of the province is dry to very dry, and spring pasture and hay growth has been very slow.

Since many areas had poor moisture in 2017 and 2018, it is especially important to assess the condition of pasture lands as the 2019 grazing season progresses and to strike balance between pasture and herd preservation. Options available depend on pasture health, forage carry over, and local supply and demand for feed.

Pasture that is still in relatively healthy condition (i.e. good litter cover and carryover, few bare patches, and few weeds) is more resilient to grazing pressure during a drought; however, care needs to be taken to ensure that the stand/stands are grazed evenly. Electric fencing, moving oiler and mineral blocks, and herding, among other things, can help spread distribution.

If tame pasture or native rangeland is in poor condition, any additional grazing pressure will exacerbate the lack of litter cover, weed invasion, and erosion and extended recovery time. Grazing perennial stands can lead to loss of species, thus permanently damaging the stands. Due to their greater diversity, native rangelands are more sensitive to species loss.

Most stands are likely somewhere between these two extremes, i.e. the stand is generally healthy but may have problems like bare patches and invasive weeds. Try to utilize under-grazed areas and rest overgrazed patches to prevent further deterioration. If possible, rest or delay grazing pastures that were heavily grazed in the previous grazing season and/or where water supply is limited.

Limited forage supply on pasture can be stretched by feeding grain and hay or straw on tame pasture land or in dry lot. Feeding on native range can introduce invasive plants into the stand and is not recommended. 

Perennial hay should be cut by early blossom for legumes or early heading for grass, whether there is sufficient hay yield or not. If timely rains appear in late June or July, it may be possible to get a good second cut. If not cut, the first growth will simply mature with little second growth.   

Determine your own and local feed options. If traditional feed is not available, explore the availability of alternative feeds like ditch and slough hay, crop residues, and screenings. Alternative feeds should be tested for nutrient content and you should consult a livestock nutrition specialist prior to feeding to ensure that the feed will meet daily requirements and to avoid health risks.

If you are fortunate enough to get rain in June and July, seeding an annual crop like oats or barley or a blend of annuals can provide additional grazing, especially if it’s seeded in low-lying areas with more moisture. For more information about seeding annuals for pasture, consult the Annual Crops for Pasture, Silage, Greenfeed and Swath Grazing webpage.

In addition to all of the above and depending on your individual feed situation, reduce your stocking rate to reduce grazing pressure. Destocking earlier is better, but depends on your individual situation. 

Cull open cows and those in poorer condition and assess bulls. Try to hang on to healthy, early- to middle-age productive cows. 

If your grazing system allows for it, creep feed calves. Calves should also be weaned early, if possible, to reduce grazing pressure.   

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