It’s a given that farmers and ranchers will face drought cycles over their lifetimes, and as the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) notes, managing forage and water through those cycles is challenging.
Drought reaches beyond the southern Prairies, too — as Saskatchewan Agriculture recently noted, even producers in northern growing regions with plenty of sloughs, potholes and dugouts should have main livestock water sources tested during a drought. Poor water quality can affect livestock health and productivity. Saskatchewan Agriculture recommends bringing a one-litre water sample into a regional office for testing and notes that staff can also help interpret water quality results. BCRC also has information on factors affecting water quality and considerations for water sources and systems.
BCRC has compiled tips for managing drought and links to many additional resources. Along with keeping an eye on water quality, the council outlines several other drought-management tips:
- Make drought management a permanent part of every grazing plan by incorporating strategies such as rotational grazing and litter retention.
- Decide beforehand which classes or groups of livestock will be destocked if necessary and at what point each group will move if the drought continues.
- Consider combining groups of animals to graze pastures with species that are more tolerant of increased grazing and to encourage grazing of less desirable species.
- Watch for toxic or poisonous plants, as cattle are more likely to graze them during dry years.
- Graze pastures that may run out of water first. Producers may need to line up portable stock water supplies to keep grazing when water becomes scarce.
- Consider pumping from the water source to a trough to keep cattle from getting stuck in drying water sites, protect water quality and extend water supplies.
- Protect plants through longer recovery times and rest periods.
- Planting annual crops, supplementing pastures and creep feeding can extend grazing resources.
- Feed testing is important during dry conditions.
An April 2019 Canadian Cattlemen article written by Duane McCartney also provides useful management strategies, although McCartney notes that it’s best to plan before the drought begins.
For example, Dr. Mike Schellenberg of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) suggests seeding annuals early to leverage any early spring moisture, incorporating cool-season grasses, legumes and brassicas. Watch for high nitrate and sulphur levels, especially during fall grazing, he adds.
Dr. Ed Bork of the University of Alberta suggests adjusting grazing to conserve deep-rooted forages such as rough fescue, orchard grass, meadow brome and alfalfa. Doing so will extend the active growth period.
Don’t automatically write off drought-stressed grass. While it might look terrible and have less crude protein, the herbage may have retained its total digestible nutrients. says Dr. Shabtai Bittman of AAFC. He adds this doesn’t hold as well for drought-stressed legumes, as they often shed leaves, leaving only stems.
McCartney also suggests grazing any available bush pastures. “Cattle will browse aspen, rose and raspberry suckers,” he writes.
The full article includes more in-depth advice from several researchers and extension people and includes a short case study of how one family manages drought.