Monitor pasture to safeguard future forage production

FARGO, N.D. -- Pasture readiness for 2018 across North Dakota has been at least a couple of weeks behind other years, and there are indications of early stress that producers should monitor.

FARGO, N.D. - Pasture readiness for 2018 across North Dakota has been at least a couple of weeks behind other years, and there are indications of early stress that producers should monitor.

A variety of issues are affecting pastures, including continued stress from the 2017 drought, dry spring conditions, a late warm-up and, in some cases, overgrazing last year.

Drought conditions continue to plague parts of North Dakota, with the area in severe drought more than doubling from 6.7 percent of the state in the May 24 release of the U.S. Drought Monitor to 13.95 in the May 31 release. Areas in moderate drought also increased slightly, as did areas considered abnormally dry. Moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions also increased slightly in South Dakota, while conditions continue to improve in Montana where only a small amount of the state is now considered abnormally dry.

Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist, is in the second year of a three-year study of grazing readiness across the state, with the assistance of county extension agents. Agents are asked to each week update conditions on at least one "tame" pasture - a pasture of planted grasses like crested wheatgrass or smooth brome - and at least one "native" pasture.

Tame pastures were, on average, ready May 9 this year, compared to about April 26 to May 1 in 2017. Native pastures also have been behind but are maturing.


"As of last week, most of our native pastures were approaching grazing readiness," Meehan says.

The delay in readiness is due to a combination of the 2017 drought and a late spring.

"I think the warm temperatures have helped," Meehan says. "If we could get some rain, it would really help."

There is wide variance depending on whether pastures were put under drought stress in 2017 and depending on how they were managed. Meehan says western wheatgrass, one of the key native pasture species in North Dakota, in an Oliver County pasture had 3.5 leaves on May 9, 2017, indicating it was ready for grazing. The grass only was at 1.5 leaves by May 14, putting it about three weeks behind.

"Most of them aren't that far behind," Meehan says. "That's an extreme case."

She explains that's where pasture management comes in. Pastures that were stressed from drought in addition to being overgrazed are farther behind pastures that were managed properly amid drought conditions.

As producers get ready to put the cows for summer, Meehan says it's important to go out and count leaves, with 3.5 leaves being optimal for turnout. Grazing too early can result in a forage production reduction of 60 percent.

"We really want to be cautious that we're not overgrazing and further stressing those areas," she says.


Throughout the summer, producers should watch their forage production, adjusting stocking rates or supplementing feed if needed to make up for less grass. Meehan says if reducing the number of animals on a given pasture isn't possible, reducing length of time animals spend on a stressed pasture will be necessary to protect its long-term viability.

That is especially important on grasses that may have reached their peak early due to stress. May, an important month for precipitation in the region, was relatively dry in many parts of North Dakota. Meehan has heard of some cool-season grasses, including Kentucky bluegrass, heading out earlier and at a shorter height than typical.

"Once a grass heads out, your production is capped," she says. "That's the maximum production you're getting this year."

Native grasses are far from reaching their reproductive stage, so Meehan says they have potential for recovery with rains throughout early summer. Even still, it's important to monitor conditions.

"We can't go off a calendar date. Things vary and we want to make sure we're getting the most productivity out of our pastures and rangelands while maintaining them in a way that is sustainable," Meehan says. "We don't want to put additional stress on those resources if we can help it. ... It's really detrimental when we keep overutilizing those resources on an annual basis."

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