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Managing Pastures for Resiliency

By Kelly Cochrane, PAg, Range Management Extension Specialist, Weyburn

April 2021

Dry rangeland
Dry rangeland conditions located south of Weyburn,
SK (August 2020).

Early spring is good time to take stock of your forage for the upcoming grazing season. Periods of wet and dry conditions are common in Saskatchewan and part of the weather cycle on the prairies. However, the extent and duration of these conditions can often be unpredictable.

Proper livestock management can help moderate the effects of adverse weather conditions. This why every spring it is important to identify potential production issues early and make necessary adjustments, like adjusting stocking rates to manage grazing pressure.

Monitoring plant growth and production throughout the growing season will allow for better management decisions and help maintain pasture productivity.

Having a grazing management plan in place, specific to your operation, will also help identify environmental as well as economic risks. It will allow for flexibility in herd composition, maintenance of pasture health and the development of strategies to deal with market conditions or climatic events.

In dealing with or preparing for challenging conditions, some strategies to consider are:

  • Use the grazing principle of take half – leave half. Grazing only 50 per cent of the plant, leaving at least four to six inches, will help preserve the aboveground and belowground biomass. This will ensure there are energy reserves left to protect the plant from stress and allow it to recover under favorable growing conditions.
  • Monitor livestock so they do not remove too much dead material from previous year’s growth (litter). Litter acts as a physical barrier that captures surface moisture and helps regulate soil moisture content and soil temperature. The removal of too much litter will increase and reduce moisture through evaporation, both of which will speed up the effect of dry summer conditions.
  • Plant annual cereals or forages for grazing or green feed. Alternate feed sources will offer alternative forage sources and take pressure off pastures.
  • Delay spring grazing by as many days as possible to give the plants time to establish and produce more biomass. Grazing too early can weaken the plants thereby delaying future growth. Peak grass production generally occurs in June, under the right conditions, so delaying grazing by even a few days during this period can provide additional benefits in the fall. For every one day of delayed spring grazing, there can be up to five days of fall grazing.
  • Combine herds and/or install cross fencing. Livestock will be less selective if there is added pressure from other animals. Grazing pressure will be reduced on more desirable plants and increased on less desirable ones. This creates a more uniform grazing distribution to use more forages in a paddock or pasture.
  • Extend rest periods so that plants have sufficient time to recover before rotating livestock back into a pasture.
  • Manage your water supply by fencing off dugouts or riparian areas with permanent water and pumping water into troughs to improve water quality and reduce water losses from livestock trampling.
  • Test feed and water quality. Ensure they have optimal quality feed and water available to maintain herd health.
  • Set critical dates to implement management changes to avoid being unprepared when action is required.

It is important to have a grazing management plan in place that has a resilience management strategy. Anticipate difficult conditions and try to stick to your plan. Be prepared to make operational changes based on conditions.

Do what is best economically for your operation and for the health of your livestock. It is important to balance the overall animal demand with total forage supply, including appropriate levels of use. Timing and frequency of grazing must also allow for sufficient rest and recovery. It may be tempting to increase grazing pressure, but if you have the means to rotate pastures or supplement feed, it will pay dividends to future pasture health and productivity.

If they have any questions, please contact your local regional office or the Agriculture Knowledge Centre in Moose Jaw at 1-866-457-2377.

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