By Nadia Mori, PAg, Regional Forage Specialist
Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture
Whether conditions will turn dry or not, extremes of weather have become more of a norm than the exception. The best way to manage your pasture or range through these tosses and turns is to A) have a plan and B) keep your forage stand as healthy as possible.
No Roots – No Grass
Have you ever strained to grab something from a shelf but despite your efforts, the desired item stayed out of reach? That is how your forage root system feels when it is too short to access a moisture layer which may be just below its reach. Roots are out of sight and often out of mind. Yet, it pays to remember that roughly two-thirds of total plant growth occurs below ground, while the visible above ground portion only makes up about one-third. This extensive root system forms the lifeline for forage plants and helps ensure long-term survival as well as productivity. Remember that drought stress can reduce or impair root growth even without added grazing pressure.
Resist the Urge
It is challenging but imperative to leave residual forage at a height of 3-4 inches (7-10cm). Removing every last blade of grass only leads to a longer road to recovery. The resulting rest period will automatically be longer. The grazing stubble left behind also helps shade and cool the soil, which reduces evaporation and conserves what little moisture there is. Just as important as removing the animals on time, is resisting the urge to put livestock back on a pasture as soon as some form of regrowth has occurred. Grass regrowth needs to reach 8 -10 inches (20-25cm) before animals can return to that paddock. Overgrazed plants will dip into the root reserves and stop allocating resources to root growth in an attempt to survive short-term. If dry conditions persist into subsequent years, desirable plants will first reduce production and eventually disappear from your stand.
It takes Moisture to grow Grass
This may be obvious but it is a reminder that there are no miracle solutions to forage growth in dry conditions. The absence of moisture will inevitably result in an absence of forage growth. Adjusting stocking rates and using alternative feeding systems helps protect your pastures, your animals, and your financial bottom line. Keeping pastures healthy during good weather conditions is an investment in ensuring the pasture will remain more productive during weather extremes and recover quicker in the aftermath. Leaving sufficient carry-over may be the hardest but most critical management tool in dry conditions.