After ongoing drought, rangeland management strategy must provide adequate recovery for grass before grazing.
IMPROVED management adapted to changing rangeland conditions will be a key to surviving three back-to-back years of drought in Texas, according to Tim Steffens, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service rangeland management specialist in Canyon, Texas.
"We have just had three of the driest growing seasons in recorded history in a row," Steffens, who is also a West Texas A&M University assistant professor, said at a recent Panhandle Ranch Management event. "We've had one of the driest falls. We've had one of the driest winters, so this coming year, don't be in any hurry to increase numbers until we find out for sure how much rain we've got and how much grass we're going to have that can respond to further rain showers later in the year."
Steffens warned that if grass starts out in bad shape from last year, it probably will continue to be in trouble this year, even with normal rainfall.
"If we don't get rain in the spring to get things started and have some grass growing by mid-June, it's probably not going to be a good year," he said. "So, by early July, you need to assess the conditions and make decisions. Then, look again in the fall, and determine if you have enough grass and if you have had enough rain to take care of the grass."
Steffens said keys to management include providing adequate recovery for grass before grazing, which means letting the plants get a full complement of leaves before cattle re-graze a plant.
A grazing "system" that does not provide adequate recovery following grazing won't do much good, he said. Whatever management strategy a rancher chooses, he said allowing adequate recovery for severely defoliated plants and leaving enough residue after a grazing period are "what is going to get you where you want to go."
Steffens said grazing decisions can prepare resources to respond favorably in the good times or to not go down so far when things are not good.
"Right now, I am not worried about weeds," he said. "If it will grow, I'm tickled to death. Get something to cover up that ground, provide some shade, protect it from the wind, keep it from eroding and provide some cover so that something can grow later."
A few other items on his ranch management strategy list include:
* Provide adequate regrowth for heavily defoliated plants, and do that every year, if possible.
* Improve animal distribution by getting the animals away from the places they are overusing and to places they are underutilizing.
* Provide every opportunity for recruitment of new plants. Most plants in pastures reproduce vegetatively; they don't have to come up from seed. However, some areas may need more seed.
* Maintain stocking rates within the carrying capacity limit.
* Maintain or improve the resilience of the plant community. Having a variety of plants during unstable conditions is a positive thing; then there's always something there to respond to rain.
Steffens said feeding hay on rangeland does not stop overgrazing because if any grass does grow, the cattle will go to it before eating the hay.
"Get cattle out of abused areas and to areas that still have feed," he said. "If you have to continue to feed cattle, I suggest getting them into a pen and feeding them there, where they won't be overgrazing plants."
He added that "planting fence posts and pipe" or dividing up pastures and providing the grass with periods of rest may be more cost effective than planting or buying hay.