Rangeland Resources and Drought

CSU web-ext-lin-green-450There was an interesting question in an online publication a couple of weeks ago that producers should really stop to think about.  In the BEEF Cow/Calf Weekly, Burt Rutherford asked the question: “Restocking or Rebuilding: What is the Difference?”  As the question was posed, the author was discussing the actual livestock numbers on an individual ranch basis and as it relates to the national cow herd. 

A common adage is that it takes twice as long to recover from something, i.e. – a drought, as it did for the event to happen.  Not a real promising perspective from an economic perspective, but probably appropriate from an ecological view.   

Some relevant questions being asked by producers are: Is my grass dead; Will it recover; Can I mechanically reseed; and What can I do to kill the weeds that come up in my pastures? 

Of course, the main answer is that nothing can be done or known until we start getting some moisture in sufficient quantities and in steadier patterns to build the soil moisture profile.  Without moisture, everything else is a moot point at this time. 

As for the other questions, “Is my grass dead?”  Some of it, probably is, especially if it has been grazed repeatedly without time to recover.  Even in well managed pastures there has been some loss of grass cover.  Grass plants are just like us, they can survive for a while without food but not very long without adequate water.  Consider that 40 percent of a plant biomass is above ground, 60 percent is below ground.  In a “normal” year, a plant may lose approximately 30 percent of its root mass during the dormant period.  This root mass must be replaced when the plant breaks dormancy or it will continue to draw on it root reserves to survive.  The more it draws the shallower the root mass becomes and, with the current drought conditions, the further it gets from subsoil moisture levels and eventually the plant will die.   

That being said, we must remember that all of our native range plants are here because they have adapted to our “semi-arid” environment.  In other words, this is NOT their first rodeo with drought!  It has been documented that we have more extended periods of drought than we have periods of excess natural moisture.  Last year was a good example, we did not have adequate moisture early in the summer and plants remained dormant.  Rains later in the season allowed some of the plants to develop some above ground growth to begin to replenish lost root mass.  Yes, it was green.  Should it have been grazed?  NO (refer to the explanation in the preceding paragraph!)  Just as we need time to recover after a bout with the flu, plants need time to recover after a drought.  Grazing them off will only result in more loss of your rangeland resources and a longer recovery period for your operation, if it recovers at all. 

With the later rains and the lack of competition from grass species, weeds thrived in native rangelands.  Many producers were asking what they could do to kill the weeds.  My question to them was; why?, for two reasons.  First, many of the weeds are a grazable resource, at the right time they make an excellent feed source.  Second, if you looked, even though it looked like the weeds were taking over the pasture, what many of the weeds were really doing was protecting very small grass plants.  Providing shade and ground cover to prevent the soil from drying too rapidly and giving the grass plants time to grow by preventing grazing.  Third, there are many forbs (weeds) that are native to our rangelands and provide a portion of the grazing profile.  If you spray herbicides to kill what you may consider undesirable plants, you are also going to kill many desirable plants and further deteriorate your overall grazing resource. 

 Now to touch on the final question: do I need to reseed?  This is a VERY expensive proposition and one that may actually prolong the agony.  Grass seed and wear and tear on you and your equipment is very expensive.  Also, if you do reseed, even a small portion of your acres, it will be several years with adequate moisture before the grass plants have sufficient growth to withstand grazing pressure.  In the interim, by adjusting the timing of grazing or changing the class of livestock grazed, from cow/calf to yearlings for example, you may be able to utilize your resources to a better economical level and better promote environmental health of the resource. 

Native rangelands are usually in a continual state of fluxion.  This can be caused by the way we actively manage the resource or the way nature manages the resource.  We can adjust our management styles, nature not so much, and we must learn to work within the confines that nature dictates.  

 For more information on range and livestock resource management, contact your local Extension Office:  Baca County 719-523-6971, Bent County 719-456-0764, Cheyenne County 719-767-5716, Crowley County 719-267-5243, Kiowa County 719-438-5321, Otero County 719-254-7608, Prowers County 719-336-7734.  Or find us on the web at:  http://www.extension.colostate.edu/SEA.  CSU Extension offers up-to-date, unbiased, research-based information to families in Southeast Colorado.  CSU Extension programs are available to all without discrimination.

Email: bruce.fickenscher@colostate.edu


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