With drought conditions intensifying across Nebraska, range and pasture growth is winding down, or in many cases has stopped. Now is a time when grazing decisions will impact next year's forage production. This spring brought timely precipitation across portions of Nebraska providing plentiful cool-season forage. However, with the end of cool-season forage production in June and the start of warm-season forage growth came persistent dry conditions across the central portion of Nebraska.
This meant good to above average cool-season forage production followed by below average warm-season forage. Now rangelands are reaching the end of growth for warm-season species as these grasses transition from leaf growth to seed production. This year's forage production is nearly completed, leaving some producers short on grass going into the fall. The temptation may be to leave cattle on pasture taking more forage than is best for plant health and vigor. However, use caution because the stress of drought conditions combined with severe grazing can be severely impacting next year's forage production.
If late-summer/early-fall rain comes causing a bump in cool-seasons species production, think hard about whether to graze it. Defoliation this late in the growing season limits the plant's ability to store energy for green up next spring, costing forage production next year. Defer grazing if possible until after a killing frost. If you have no other choice but to graze, try to leave 3-4 inches of growth at the base of the plant and avoid grazing these same pastures next spring. Assuming adequate moisture is available next year, deferring grazing on these pastures will give these cool season grasses the opportunity to recover before being grazed again.
Now is the time to get out and take an inventory of pastures to see what forage is available. For the most part, what forage production is there now on upland range and pasture is all grazing managers should plan to graze until next year's growing season. Select a site away from water or mineral sites that is representative of the entire pasture. Looking down at the soil surface, rather than out at the pasture, provides the better assessment of pasture/soil condition. Inspect not only the forage quantity, but, just as important, ground cover. Litter, or the grass laying on the soil surface, absorbs precipitation, reduces evaporation by shading the soil, and adds organic matter to the soil. This makes a significant difference when every drop of precipitation counts. Also consider stubble height, also called "residual." Residual, like litter, helps water infiltrate the soil, especially during heavy rains.
Conducting an assessment of pastures gives grazing managers a current assessment of where they stand. Establishing annual monitoring protocols gives you the ability to compare conditions to previous years, providing an in-depth look into the impacts of drought on your forage. Use this information to budget forage and plan accordingly. Strategies to destock pastures early should be utilized to minimize the impact of drought conditions on rangelands.
Drought conditions should be an expected event. Proactive planning and management of rangeland and pastures to minimized drought impacts to grass growth and vigor will help ensure rapid recovery when rain comes again. For more information on management of rangeland and pastures, see the Nebraska Extension Circulars "Skillful Grazing Management on Semiarid Rangeland" and "Integrating Management Objectives and Grazing Strategies on Semi-arid Rangeland".
Jack Arterburn, Nebraska Extension Educator
University of Nebraska–Lincoln