How well livestock operations recover from drought depends on more than the weather. Stocking rates and producers’ management skills are also important, says Keith Harmoney, a Kansas State University research and extension forage production specialist based in Hays.
Several years of near-normal precipitation, followed by one year of severe drought, reduced forage production from 25 to 60% of normal, according to studies at the Hays center and in northeastern Colorado. How much production declined depended on the rangelands’ management in previous years, says Harmoney.
Drought-year yields from new rangeland growth on moderately and lightly utilized pastures at Hays were, respectively, 220-800 lbs/acre greater than those on heavily used pasture.
The study’s pastures received above-average precipitation during the year after the drought. During this recovery, pastures with light and moderate grass use before and during the drought year resulted in 600 and 1,490 lbs more forage per acre than did the heavily utilized pasture.
“In these studies, the moderate utilization was similar to the concept of ‘take half, leave half,’ ” Harmoney says. “If grass was not heavily utilized during the drought year, moderate stocking could resume in the year following, since the main determinant of annual forage yield is current-year precipitation.
“In case precipitation did not return, however, producers would need to be ready to reduce stocking rates early in the season, to avoid heavy grass utilization.”
“Under moderate rates, individual animal gain is near maximum, and production per acre is near optimum for economic returns,” he says. “Furthermore, forage not utilized during one growing season is carried over into the next year and is available in case drought conditions limit new growth.”
Moderate stocking rates vary by precipitation zone, range site, and vegetative composition, he says. So producers should investigate the recommended rates for their area.
Harmoney advises producers in drought-prone areas to think about diversifying cow/calf herds with stocker animals. Cow herd size can remain consistent. But producers can make adjustments to reduce overall stocking rate and prevent pasture overuse during drought by selling stocker animals early and reallocating those acres to their cow/calf herd.
Improving animal distribution with fencing, water developments, burning, or supplement and mineral tubs can also help limit any overused and low-vigor areas in pastures, he notes.
Under repeated heavy use, the vegetative composition of Kansas’ western rangelands will shift toward high proportions of buffalograss, Harmoney added.
Other grasses – such as big and little bluestem, sideoats and blue grama, and western wheatgrass – are more productive than buffalograss. So management that reduces buffalograss composition and increases other desirable grasses is an indication that grazing practices are improving pastures’ composition, vigor and production.