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During dry years, take action to preserve pastures

During dry years, take action to preserve pastures

Cattle Grazing

Coming into the grazing season short on water, producers are encouraged to use the resources available to them to make a plan.

“As producers you can put control back in your hands in the form of data,” said Krista Ehlert, a South Dakota State University Extension range specialist based in Rapid City. She gave a presentation “Rethinking drought on the ranch,” for the extension Crop Hour webinar during forages week Feb. 24.

She recommended checking local conditions on a few useful university websites. SDSU’s Mesonet website at has weather data from 2015 to today, and it can give a clear picture of how much wet and dry years vary from normal. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Grass-Cast helps ranchers predict the amount of grass available for grazing using 40 years of weather and vegetation data. Its forecasts are updated every two weeks, so Ehlert urges producers to check back often.

“Accuracy improves with time as the growing season unfolds,” she said.

During dry years, it’s especially important to take it easy on native pastures. Introduced grasses like Kentucky bluegrass, crested wheatgrass and smooth brome are better able to withstand grazing pressure, Ehlert said. Don’t turn cattle out onto native pastures until the plants are at the 3.5 to four-leaf stage, she advised.

Early weaning when calves are moved to a feedlot or a drylot, can help save on grass. Ehlert noted an SDSU study that showed weaning 90 days early – in August instead of November – provided another month of grazing time.

“You’re adding to your grass bank,” she said. “That’s vital in terms of drought management.”

Ehlert said it would be helpful if producers changed how they think of drought and manage their grasses if dry years are the norm and any precipitation is a bonus.

“It’s really important to move from responding to a crisis to actually being pro-active,” she said.

Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor

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