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Grazing Management Tips for Beating the Heat

Managing herd numbers may be the best economical and environmental management tool for grazers dealing with this summer's prolonged drought, according to USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Grassland Specialist Jess Jackson, Jr.

"Culling less productive breeding stock and weaning young animals early will help producers capitalize on record beef prices and conserve the health and productivity of pastures,' he said. 

Weaning animals early reduces the nutrient demand on the mother by up to 50 percent, said Jackson. "This helps the breeding herd regain weight, prepare to rebreed and lessen demand on struggling forages," he said.

Times of drought, especially before prices decline, are a golden opportunity for most producers to cull heavily and select for the most productive genetics, said Jackson. "Wave goodbye. Send them to the auction and save that money to invest in new breeding stock when the drought breaks," he said.

Jackson recommends continued culling if forage regrowth slows due to a prolonged drought to save feed expenses.

For the remaining herd, Jackson recommends producers establish a sacrifice paddock instead of open grazing. A sacrifice paddock, or one that gets heavily grazed, is key to helping pastures quickly return to a usable condition. Long-term abusive grazing will significantly slow the recovery of struggling paddocks.  

Jackson explains why. "Plant cells continue to divide during stress periods but stay at an immature size, waiting for good growing conditions to return. Grazing or mowing off these immature cells decreases tonnage of regrowth which actually prolongs the impact of dry weather as producers try to return to normal grazing management after good conditions return," he said.

In addition, overgrazing tends to encourage thistles, undesirable grasses and weeds that will require time and money to control. "It is usually a better management option to replant the sacrifice paddock rather than have to apply herbicides and fertilizers as well as inter-seed to repair all the paddocks," said Jackson.

For the non-sacrifice paddocks, NRCS recommends producers maintain a stubble height of 4 inches for most pasture species and up to twice that for native plants. Maintaining some shade protects the soil, allows the plants to produce new leaf cells for a quick rebound, and will help keep weeds at bay, he said.

For on-site assistance with drought planning for grazing lands and for other land uses contact your local NRCS representative at a USDA Service Center in your county.


Jess Jackson, Iowa NRCS Grassland Specialist, 641-472-8411