Drought planning essential for cattlemen in 2013


    By Jim Smith
    SUN Columnist

    The grazing season for 2012 was certainly a challenge due to drought conditions. Cattle producers face some tough decisions in 2013.

    Some pastures have carryover grass, but many ranchers have utilized most of their available forage. Stocking rate is considered the most important of all range management decisions. I want to share with you several ideals and strategies for dealing with drought before, during and after drought, backed with scientific research from several universities and USDA research centers.

    From the National Ranching Heritage Center, Texas Tech University: “Grass production is decreased during a drought and the longer a drought persists and the more severe it is, the more grass production is reduced. In extreme situations, perennial grasses are killed. As a result of weakened or killed perennial grasses, bare ground is exposed. When bare ground is exposed, annual and perennial weeds and noxious brush tend to fill the void when rain occurs. During droughts, more desirable species of grasses disappear from the plant community and increaser species (less desirable grasses) become relatively more abundant. There are at least four strategies that rangeland managers should follow in preparing for and following a drought.”

    1. Always manage forage resources according to the way grasses grow.

    2. Manage grasses according to their ability to respond to grazing.

    3. Capture most of the precipitation that falls on a site with vegetative cover.

    4. Always balance the stocking rate with the available forage.

    Understanding shoot growth in grasses is a basic tenet in proper grazing management. Shoot growth in grasses is divided into two life forms: vegetative shoots and long-shoots, or reproductive shoots. This applies to all grasses, annual and perennial, and warm and cool-season grasses. When grasses begin to “green up” in the spring, the plants are characterized by vegetative shoots. Once the plants become reproductive and the flowers stalk is elevated, plant productivity is reduced. This usually occurs about mid-summer. It is during the post-reproductive period, in the fall, that plants are producing tillers and storing carbohydrates from which next year’s growth will come. The post-reproductive to dormancy period is the stage in the annual cycle of perennial grasses in which the grasses are most susceptible to damage via defoliation by grazing. Research in southern Arizona, eastern Oregon, and Texas Tech indicate that current year’s growth is more highly correlated to the rainfall received during the previous autumn than from the current spring and summer. The reason: tillers in grasses are set during the late summer and autumn before they are expressed as growth the following spring.

    Residual herbage is the grass that is left at the end of the growing season. The amount of herbage that is left at the end of the growing season (and rainfall) will determine the amount of forage production during the subsequent spring. Energy stored in the basal crown and the stem bases gives rise to next year’s production. It is very important to leave the stem bases and basal crowns to produce tillers and store carbohydrates for the following spring.

    Back to my first paragraph: We have to be flexible in our management this coming year and not going full steam ahead even if we get normal rainfall. Pastures are weak and stand losses could occur if we don’t allow for ample rest for pastures to recover. You may want to delay turning your cattle on pastures 10 days to two weeks.

    Here are recommendations for your consideration, made in 2003, following the drought of 2002, in a paper titled “Drought Effects on Rangeland Ecosystem,” by the research team at The Northern Plains (Cheyenne/Fort Collins) USDA Research Center. They suggested that cattlemen need to increase their flexibility in livestock classes and numbers to facilitate management decisions, within-and between-years. To increase flexibility, livestock owners can:

    1. Reduce their base cow herd and increase yearling numbers which can be sold when forage is limiting without having to sacrifice genetic resources of the cow herd.

    2. Change to a later calving date next year to reduce grazing pressure on summer pastures due to smaller calves.

    3. Change to an earlier weaning date to reduce grazing pressure on summer pastures and increase marketing options at non-selling dates.

    4. Some combination of the previous options.

    One thing is given: ranchers will have to develop management practices which deal with uncertainty. Uncertainties about future weather patterns, market prices of cattle and production cost. Here is a website that you might want to visit. www.ext.colostate.edu/drought/droughttips.html, click on Extension Tips for Dealing with Drought and scroll down to Livestock.

    Small acreage owners: Understanding shoot growth in grasses can be beneficial to many small acreage owners here in Archuleta County. Applying this knowledge to your pasture management will go a long way towards protecting a valuable resource. Many of these small parcels are used for grazing horses. If owners will use the time proven successful cattlemen approach of “Take half and leave half,” your forage production will grow. Research, as reported in a special report: GRASS, shows that leaving half of your grass after grazing, the root growth continues unimpaired. If you graze 60 percent of the grass, half of the root growth is stopped. If you remove 80 percent of the leaves, root growth stops for 12 days. This leads to the condition known as overgrazing. This will affect rooting depth, plant vigor, allowing weeds to invade, and can result in death of desirable pasture grasses. I will continue my discussion about small acreage pasture management next week.

    Food preservation classes 

    The CSU Extension Office in Archuleta County is offering Back to Basics Food Preservation. We are looking for all who are interested in attending beginner food preservation classes.

    Jan. 28 — Jams and Jellies, 1 or 6 p.m.

    Feb. 25 — Whole Fruit Canned/Frozen, 1 or 6 p.m.

    March 25 — Pickling/Freezing/Drying, 1 or 6 p.m.

    April 22 — Tomatoes and Salsa-Canned, Frozen/Drying of Fruits and Vegetables, 1 or 6 p.m.

    May 6 — Vegetables/Pressure Canning, 1 or 6 p.m.

    Each class will also cover basics of spoilage, food borne illnesses, high-altitude adjustments and canning basics.

    Contact the Archuleta County CSU Extension Office at 264-5931 or coopext_archuleta@mail.colostate.edu to be added to the class list. Space is limited, so it will be on a first-come, first-served basis. The cost will be $10 per class per person and each person will get to take home one jar filled with what was made during class.

    According to the USDA, “Nearly half of the vitamins may be lost within a few days unless the products are cooled or preserved. Within one to two weeks, even refrigerated produce loses half or more of its vitamins. If handled properly and canned promptly after harvest, preserved food can be more nutritious than fresh produce sold in local stores.”


    Colorado State University Extension will offer free radon awareness classes and free screening kits on Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 4 p.m. Classes will be held at the Archuleta County Extension Office.

    Fair Book cover 

    The Archuleta County Fair Board is looking for Archuleta county residents to submit their art for the cover of the 2013 fair book. The theme for the 2013 fair is “Party With The Animals.” Please submit art/photo work by Feb. 27 at 4 p.m. to the CSU Extension Office, P.O. Box 370, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147, or drop it off at 344 U.S. 84. Call the Extension Office, 264-5931, with questions.

    Colorado State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Colorado counties cooperating. CSU Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.


    Jan. 31 — Colorado Master Gardener Program, 9 a.m.

    Feb. 1 — 4-H Cloverbud Project meeting, 2 p.m.

    Feb. 2 — 4-H Dog Project meeting, 10 a.m.

    Feb. 4 — 4-H Riddles & Rhymes Fun Food Times, 4 p.m.

    Feb. 5 — 4-H Shooting Sports Project meeting, 4 p.m.

    Feb. 6 — 4-H Sportsfishing Project meeting, 4 p.m.

    Feb. 6 — Radon Awareness Presentation, 4 p.m.

    Feb. 7 — Colorado Master Gardener Program, 9 a.m.

    Feb. 8 — 4-H Cloverbud Project meeting, 2 p.m.

    Check out our webpage at www.archuleta.colostate.edu for calendar events and information.