ND pastures may be stressed after wild 2019

Conditions ranging from drought to too wet stressed rangelands, cut into feed supplies.

Colorful wildflowers, including maxmilian sunflowers, dot the landscape on pasture in August 2019 that was burned a year prior as part of research at Central Grasslands Research Extension Center near Streeter, N.D. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service

North Dakota livestock producers got a bit of a reprieve over the winter, with milder conditions allowing feed resources to stretch out more than had been feared after a particularly wet 2019.

North Dakota State University Extension in November 2019 conducted a feed availability survey and followed up on it in December. The survey showed that some ranchers wouldn’t have enough feed to make it through the winter feeding season, with wet conditions keeping harvest from happening across much of the state. Hay was difficult to make throughout the season, and a wet fall meant some bales were stranded behind expanding water while some corn couldn’t be cut for silage.

Extension hasn’t been called on to update the survey, with changing demands due to responding to COVID-19 concerns, says Miranda Meehan, Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. However, she believes people acquired feed or sold down on their herds in the fall if needed, and others were assisted in making it through the season by a season with less snow and warmer temperatures than had been feared.

“We didn’t have as harsh of winter,” she says. “People had enough to get through.”

Some may have been helped, in part, by purchasing feed. The North Dakota Agriculture Department earlier this month announced that 116 producers had applied to the department’s Emergency Feed Transportation Assistance Program to help cover feed transportation expenses incurred between Sept. 30, 2019, and Feb. 20, 2020. The program dispersed $250,000.


The challenge moves now to determining if spring and summer forages are ready and available. Meehan says concerns are variable across the state. Producers in western North Dakota have reported being in need of moisture, while eastern producers have stayed wet. Their moisture concerns are “when will it go away,” she says.

The excess moisture in the ground shouldn’t keep grasses from growing in a normal fashion, so long as they get heat and sunshine. Because of its root structure, most rangelands are resilient.

“You’re not going to see as much of a negative impact from that ground being wet, unless it’s under water for an extended period of time,” she says.

But there are possible stressors in some areas that Meehan warns about.

First, excess moisture pushed some herds into upland pastures as other pastures may have been under water. That may have put more stress on some pastures that ended up being overused.

“If we’re getting out in those pastures before they had a chance to recover, it’s going to add some extra pressure before they recover,” she says.

That could be particularly pronounced in northern parts of the state, which experienced their third straight growing-season drought, followed by an extremely wet fall.

In most years, the recommendations for producers who need to give pastures some extra recovery time are to supplement with feed on pastures or to use annual forages. However, many people don’t have feed to supplement with or were unable to plant annual forages due to the wet fall. So, Meehan says it make take “being creative and thinking outside the box” to deal with this year’s issues. The good news is that most pastures can stand up to a bit of rough treatment.


“You might put some extra stress on your rangelands, but they can recover,” she says.

Introduced grasses, like bluegrasses and bromes, are earlier maturing and are ready for grazing in the three-leaf stage, which occurs in early to mid May. Native pastures are mature at the 3½ leaf stage, around early June.

Meehan does caution that producers should look for signs of stress on their grasses, like lower productivity, unusual amounts of bare ground and the appearance of forbes like fringed sagewort.

“If we’re seeing a lot of change, that means there’s something going on,” she says.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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