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Published May 20, 2013, 09:42 AM

Wait, if you can, to graze

Coming out of a drought, ranchers need to be especially careful with their pastures this spring. What things should producers do and not do?

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Area ranchers should wait as long as they can to begin grazing slow-to grow pastures, a livestock specialist says.

“Try to feed (hay) as long as you can. Limit what you graze. Give some supplemental feed, if you can,” says John Dhuyvetter, livestock systems specialist with the North Dakota State University North Central Research Extension Center in Minot.

Livestock producers across much of the Upper Midwest are struggling with a late spring that’s delayed grass growth. Grazing cattle too soon on young grass hurts the plant and limits future growth. One rule of thumb is that a grass plant should produce three and three and a half new leaves before grazing begins.

Because of the late spring, a lot of grass in the region is slow to reach the three-leaf stage, Dhuyvetter says.

Given that, “We want to delay grazing as long as possible,” he says. “The dilemma with that is, some people are out of feed. There’s probably still some feed around, but the expense (of buying it) is probably prohibitive for some situations.”

Dhuyvetter has some other general suggestions for livestock producers facing feed shortages:

• Consider “destocking,” or selling part of your herd. “Try to match what you have (livestock) with what’s going to grow. If you don’t destock now, you might have to sell your whole herd later.”

• Consider moving cattle to another area where feed supplies are better, though such a move may not be feasible.

• Consider setting aside some cropland for a crop such as oats, millet or sorghum that can be grazed by livestock in late summer if necessary.

Changing moisture conditions are normal in the region, says Lee Manske, range scientist at the North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Center.

“We go through cycles of wet and dry” in which pasture conditions can vary greatly, he says.

Livestock producers “need to be proactive, not reactive,” he says. “There are a lot of things, not expensive, that you can do to be proactive on this boom-or-bust cycle.”

For instance, the “twice-over grazing” system coordinates grazing on native rangeland with grass growth stages to maximize how much grass cattle can eat safely.

Manske has developed a handbook for managing pasture and forage. The guide includes material on dealing with drought.

More information.