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Drought management for pastures: Q & A

Tips on getting past a drought and when you should consider destocking

Q. We have just experienced the driest May on record. The growth on my pastures is pretty dismal. I am under a lot of pressure and stress. Can H M help me?

A. Yes, definitely. H M is a decision-making process. Good decision-making is always important. In difficult times it is critical. Thank you so much for asking for help.

Q. What’s the first thing I should do to get through this drought?

A. The first and most important thing is to take care of yourself, your spouse and your family.

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Q. That makes a lot of sense. I know the drought is having a negative impact on our relationships but I never thought of actually doing something to make things better. Can you suggest some actions we might take?

A. That’s a difficult question and a very personal one. Each person and family is unique and will need to find their own best answer. Some general suggestions might be:

  1. Realizing that drought can have a huge negative impact on relationships is a huge first step. Make a plan to maintain your health. Get professional help if that is necessary. Remember being wise enough to seek help is a sign of wisdom and strength not weakness.
  2. Talk about the drought with your spouse and family.
  3. Associate with positive like-minded people.
  4. Maintain a positive attitude. Remember you are in charge of your attitude in all circumstances. A good book to emphasize this is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I highly recommend it.
  5. Develop a sense of gratitude. There are always many things to be thankful for. Dwelling on these thoughts will help you maintain a positive attitude.
  6. Believe in yourself. You have the skills and ability to get through this. Remember that life’s challenges are meant to make us, not break us. When the drought is ended you will be a stronger, more capable person.
  7. Put the drought in perspective. Every drought that has ever occurred has been ended by a rain.

Q. I can see that I need to care for my people. What’s the next step in dealing with a drought?

A. There are four key principles to managing during a drought:

  1. Slow down your animal moves (increase recovery).
  2. Reduce the number of herds you have.
  3. Supplemental feed.
  4. Destock.

Q. I don’t understand. I’ve been tempted to give my cows more area and to move them faster because the growth is poor. You seem to be suggesting the exact opposite. Can you explain?

A. Your idea of more area and moving faster is a normal response to poor growth. Unfortunately both of these ideas are completely wrong and need to be resisted. Our management during drought is focused on buying more time. Time for the plants to fully recover. Time to wait for the coming rain.

How can I gain time?

During a drought plants need more time to achieve full recovery. This extra time is gained by slowing down and grazing more severely. It can be done even more effectively by using temporary fencing to divide pastures into one-day moves instead of five. This will likely result in six days of grazing as opposed to the planned five days. As you increase your moves you shorten the graze period and increase stock density. The result is a more uniform and a more severe graze.

Q. I thought we were supposed to leave grass behind and not graze too severely?

A. This is a common concern. It is something to be aware of when you continuously graze. It is not an issue when you use planned grazing. Overgrazing is different than severe grazing. Overgrazing occurs by staying too long at one time or returning before full recovery. In normal growing conditions a graze period of three to five days is a good guideline. In a drought you can lengthen the graze period. You can’t overgraze a plant that is not growing. When there is no growth there will be no overgrazing by lengthening the graze period. However, there is a great danger of overgrazing by not allowing full recovery. Severe grazing refers to the amount of residue left when the cattle leave a pasture. The ideal is to leave as much as possible. The key is that you need to achieve full recovery. When you graze severely during a drought you will remove some litter. This is not ideal but it is much better than the alternative, which is overgrazing. Severe grazing followed by full recovery is not detrimental.

Q. Should you reduce the number of herds?

A. As you reduce the number of herds you are running you increase the number of pastures available and you increase the stock density. Both of these are helpful for the reasons given above.

Q. Your third point was to supplemental feed. I’ve read that you can’t feed through a drought.

A. Whether or not you choose to supplemental feed is a personal decision. Only you can decide if it is the best option for you. If you decide to supplemental feed it is best to start early and feed to buy more time for recovery. If we use temporary fencing and graze more severely we have the potential to add two or more days. Supplemental feed will add another day or two, buying more time for full recovery and for the rain to arrive.

Q. When should you think about destocking?

A. Once again destocking is a personal decision. Some general guidelines are:

  1. Cull cows and yearling cattle can be sold any time. If you are concerned about maintaining your cow herd sell your culls and yearlings early. You will likely be pleased with the returns.
  2. In a drought the earlier you sell some portion of your herd the more likely you will be able to maintain the balance of your herd. If you wait until the bitter end you may have to sell all of your herd.
  3. It is vital to maintain the health and condition of your animals at all times. This will allow you to receive a good price should you decide to sell at some point.
  4. If you sell your herd or a portion of it check out your tax position and make a plan. If the drought is severe there is usually a “rollover” for breeding stock.

About the author

Columnist

Don Campbell ranches with his family at Meadow Lake, Sask., 
and teaches Holistic Management courses.

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