NDSU specialists have received many questions about drought and conditions over the ranch over the winter, and they recently held a webinar on how to address issues ahead of time.
Miranda Meehan, NDSU Extension Livestock environmental stewardship specialist, and Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center (CGREC), spoke on pasture and forage management, while Adnan Akyuz, state climatologist, gave an overview of drought conditions.
“Soil moisture has been very dry in the western part of the state – between 1-2 percent between Jan. 1 and April 1, “Akyuz said, meaning that the soil has only drier than the current some 1-2 percent of the time.
However, a significant mid-April snowstorm was forecast for western North Dakota and much of the state, so conditions may improve.
Even though there was significant snowfall in the central to eastern regions of the state over the winter, there was a lot of rain from Jan. 1 to 1.
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In McHenry County, dry conditions exist in the southwest corner of the county. A lot of cattle are left in the area, and producers are continuing to run out of feed.
“Most of the producers in the area have stated that it was just as dry last spring as it is now,” Akyuz said.
In Ward County, drought conditions exist throughout the county.
“Snow drifted in between the tree rows, but the rest of the land is still dry,” he said. “Some runoff did occur during melting in March, and that helped put some water back in the dugouts. But as the frost leaves that area, the water is soaking in. “
Akyuz showed a slide of a producer’s pasture in the western half of the state that the producer commented on was his calving pasture, not a feedlot. There was little grass in the pasture.
“The root zone is very dry in the northwestern part of the state and near normal in the rest of the state,” Akyuz said. “We are just like we were last spring.”
But the Groundwater Drought Indicator is showing “just how easy it would have been for us to go back into the drought like last year,” he said.
From June to August, the three-month outlook is showing above normal temperatures but below normal rainfall for the entire state, “he said. “This is alarming.”
Sedivec said he didn’t expect to be talking about drought in spring 2022 after the long drought of 2021.
“Much of the Northern Plains is still expecting drought conditions,” he said.
To forecast forage conditions this spring and summer, Sedivec checked an NDAWN map of North Dakota that showed the departure of average rainfall from August. 15 through Oct. 31, 2021.
Most of the state was lucky enough to get more than 100 percent precipitation in many areas with more than 180 percent along the Edgeley area.
“Most of the state has a promising looking scenario for a good spring in 2022 because of what happened last fall,” Sedivec said.
However, the northwestern corner of the state, with 53 percent of normal in the Crosby area, and Sidney, Mont., With 63 percent of normal, are expected to “exacerbate” this spring.
“The grass that grows in the fall is what starts to grow in the spring,” he said.
Over the past winter, the southeastern region had a good snowfall – 121 percent above normal.
“We really needed snow in 2021-22, but as you go west, we didn’t get much snow,” he said.
Looking at the snow map, Hettinger had only 31 percent of normal snowfall.
“My biggest concern was there was not enough moisture to refill these stock dams and wetland areas we need for watering,” Sedivec said.
Meehan added that water quality will depend on spring runoff. A county agent in the western part of the state commented that their ranch on the dam was lower than it had ever been.
Meehan has seen some toxicities from cattle drinking water with high sulfates.
Producers can buy a tester cheap enough to put in their pickups to check their own water sources.
For total dissolved solids (TDS), producers and extension agents use a handheld TDS meter, and for sulfates, they use test strips.
“Water screenings in 2021 showed there were 1,549 field screenings with 138 samples sent to the lab, and of those, 214 producers made management changes,” Meehan said. Of the field screenings, there were 151 elevated TDS and 329 elevated sulfates. Wells also had issues.
In recent years, when it has been hot and dry, Meehan has seen increased cyanobacteria, which causes deadly toxins to all types of animals and health issues to humans.
“The best solution for drought resilience is to look at water development long-term,” she said, adding that there were several water assistance programs available in the state. Consider hauling water until the projects can be built.
Sedivec pointed out that the low moisture from May 1 to July 1 in 2021 affected forage production, pasture production, and crop production. That is the number one critical time period for moisture for grass, pasture, and hay production. The second critical time period is in the fall.
“Much of the state had above normal rainfall in the fall (last year). In that time period, we grow the tillers that begin to grow the following spring, “Sedivec said. “As long as you didn’t graze those tillers off, you’ll set up a normal spring in terms of production – if moisture is above normal.”
Sedivec photographed in western wheatgrass tiller on Oct. 12, 2021, around the CGREC station. The growing point on the tiller is near the ground surface, between the bottom two leaves.
“The positive was that you were not allowed to graze last fall, so the potential to graze the regrowth was there,” he said. “And you need that. It helped producers make it through the fall period. “
But if the tillers were grazed off, it does terminate growth. Elongation elevates as grass matures out.
“Most of the plants last fall in the vegetative stage, which set us up for success this spring,” Sedivec said.
However, if there was little snow cover over the winter, there was potential for some winter kills on the tillers.
“In the western part of the state, we could see some abortion on these tillers,” he said. “Those who had snow cover will be in really great shape as long as they get moisture this spring.”
Sedivec showed photos of “take half / leave half” grass pastures. Those pastures with slight to moderate use and full use will come into good condition in the spring.
Those producers who didn’t have a choice, including those in the northwest who had to graze the tillers to survive last fall, those areas will come into spring in the worst shape.
Expect turnout to be delayed and have low vigor grass pastures if that was the case.
“If any area in the state has any shortage of low moisture this spring, we will see problems in all stages of (grass) growth and we do not have much subsoil moisture to carry us over,” Sedivec said.
NDSU Extension agents across the state will be participating in a project related to fall grazing this spring – how management during the drought and grazing use last fall impacted the ability of those grasslands to recover.
“We are going to monitor grazing readiness and development this spring, as well as grass growth and production. We are looking at how management is able to recover these grasslands during these grasslands, ”Meehan said.
She pointed out this would probably be a multi-year study where they are looking at following these grasslands because of the way this year is shaping up.
The key to grazing this year was to allow the recovery of pastures last fall and get snow.
Overgrazed pastures should be deferred from grazing this spring. Pick pastures this spring that have the greatest regrowth since last fall and graze on the best pastures as the first pastures.
With recommendations based on production, spring grazing and early turnout have the greatest impact on forage production. Leaf area is removed that requires carbon dioxide and sunlight, so those plants lose vigor and production (as high as 65 percent in dry years).
Delay turnout in that mid-May period as long as possible.
“Most of the state will have a good production if we get a normal spring,” Sedivec said. “If we have a dry spring, eastern Montana and northwestern North Dakota will be dry for a third year.”
For those producers without a normal spring, expect a need to destock the pasture and expect another severe loss in forage production and pasture.
“In 2021, most of the state had 35-40 percent of normal hay production, which is why you are seeing high prices, especially in the last few months. If we stay dry, I don’t see much improvement in production, “he said.
The western half of the state may also be in severe drought, but there will be topsoil moisture.
The eastern half will be in the best shape since 2020, but could go backwards fast if there is no new moisture.
If there is moisture this summer, there will be no production.
“Start now to have a drought plan in place by June 1 or May 1 if you are in the northwest,” Sedivec said.
Producers should have drought management strategies in place early in the game, not just for the cattle, but the land, water, and the entire ranch system.
At CGREC, Sedivec is lining up contracts for hay, since hay prices are high right now, in order to make sure there is hay for the winter of 2022-23.
For more information, see https://www.ndsu.edu/agriculture/ag-hub/events/livestock-drought-outlook-webinars.
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