Plan Now for the 2023 Grazing Season

Nov 17, 2022

North Dakota has experienced some level of drought since July 2020.

“Although the state experienced great growing season moisture during the spring of 2022, we have been very dry since mid-July,” says Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental steward specialist and Extension disaster education coordinator. “In fact, the fall moisture and subsequent drought rating in 2022 is worse than in 2020.”

As of early November 2022, over 92% of North Dakota is in a moderate to severe drought compared to 65% in 2020.

Drought conditions have impacted the condition of range and pasture land in North Dakota. The latest report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistic Service indicated the condition of range and pasture in the state as: 4% very poor, 25% poor, 47% fair, 23% good and 1% excellent. The current drought is just one of the factors influencing the condition of range and pasture. Many pastures received severe use during the 2021 drought and were not given adequate rest to recover in 2022 due to the dry summer and fall.

“Forage production on pasture and hay land is directly impacted by climate and management during the fall in the northern Plains,” says Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist.

Cool-season grasses, including brome, Kentucky bluegrass, all wheatgrasses, orchardgrass and timothy, produce fall tillers. These tillers become next year’s first growth. If these tillers are removed by grazing animals, die due to drought or don’t even develop due to a fall drought, then spring growth will be delayed and forage production reduced.

Fall and early winter grazing can impact the subsequent year’s production if grazing use is close to severe (> 60% use). In a study conducted by NDSU Extension in 2021, fall overgrazing decreased plant height of all cool-season grasses by 30% to 80%, depending on grass species, and reduced overall forage production by an average of 57% with severe use the following year. Read the full article in the 2022 NDSU North Dakota Livestock Research Report.

Grazing fall pastures and hay land in 2022

Many ranchers will fall graze range, pasture and hay lands. This is a common practice in the northern Plains, but ranchers should take precaution on how close animals are allowed to graze.

“If you are grazing hay or pasturelands this fall, allow livestock to graze only at a light to moderate level,” advises Sedivec.

Ranchers rely heavily on perennial hay crops for their yearly forage production. Full to severe grazing use of hay ground can reduce the subsequent year’s production by 50% or more. If drought persists in 2023, production could be reduced by 75% or more.

Native rangelands are more resilient than seeded pastures and hay land but can also be impacted by fall grazing, says Sedivec. Ranchers should only allow livestock grazing to be 40% or less on rangeland this fall to minimize negative impacts on next year’s production potential.

Fall drought effects on 2023 forage production

“The fall drought of 2022 will impact plant growth in 2023, irrelevant of fall grazing,” says Meehan. “New fall tillers were less common this year than in 2021 due to low moisture content. Tillers that did develop were stressed and are more susceptible to winter kill, especially if we have an open winter (little to no snow).”

NDSU Extension specialists suggest using these “what if” scenarios to guide your grazing strategies next spring:

  • If we receive below-normal moisture in 2023, expect lower forage production for the growing season and a decline in forage quality earlier in the season. There will be no residual soil moisture to offset the lack of precipitation. Areas currently in D2 could experience a 25% or greater loss in forage production.
  • If spring precipitation is normal, expect a delay in plant development and lower production due to a loss in tiller development following the dry fall. Areas in D2 should prepare for a 20-25% reduction in forage.
  • If we experience a wet spring, forage production and quality will likely be normal but not above normal.
  • If range, pasture and hay lands were slightly to not grazed during the 2022 fall, spring turn out may still be delayed by one to two weeks due to low tiller development this fall, but forage production potential should be near normal, depending on May and June moisture levels.
  • If pastures or hay land were close to severely grazed this fall, ranchers should prepare for a delayed pasture turn out and less forage production in 2023. If spring moisture content is above normal, forage production may still be near normal, but delayed by one to two weeks. If spring precipitation is near or below normal, expect a one- to two-week delay in growth and less production.

Spring and early summer moisture is still the number one driver in predicting yearly forage production. However, knowing that fall grazing can impact plant growth vigor and production the subsequent year, livestock producers can plan ahead to identify when to properly turn out livestock next spring, identify alternative feed options, and plan for less forage if pastures were overgrazed this fall or if drought persists.

“Livestock producers should have a plan in place to reduce their stocking rates if overgrazing occurred this year, especially this fall, and if drought persists in 2023,” says Meehan. “They will need to adjust the length of time they graze and/or the number of animals grazed.”

Making early adjustments to the stocking rate will prevent overgrazing and reduce the length of time the grass takes to recover from drought, as well as improve the long-term sustainability of livestock operations.

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