Drought may be an imminent problem in some areas, which may require tough decisions for cattle producers, especially if excessively dry conditions persist for years without relief.
This topic has been well researched by Dr. Bart Lardner, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and he says that while producers can’t control when it rains, they can control other factors, including crop rotation and herd size, to extend the life of a pasture.
He says growers should start by assessing how damaging drought is to have a clear picture of the problem that needs a solution.
“I really think it comes down to how bad is the drought in your area? And did it affect all my resources – just some of my resources? And does it affect my grazing resources? Has this affected my hay potential? These are all really serious things to consider and will my winter feed supply be affected? Can I transfer my herd number? Or maybe I need to start destocking or maybe move the cows to a different zip code?” – says Lardner.
He says that resources need to be stretched for a year or two before any really tough decisions have to be made to reduce the size of the herd. Referring to cattle producers in southern Saskatchewan, he says those producers are now in their third year of drought and are now forced to have a conversation no producer wants to have, reducing herd size in the name of sustainability. However, Lardner says it’s important to get ahead of the drought and make these tough decisions to be proactive rather than reactive.
When looking at weeds, some may be tempted to make them the main component of the forage, however, Lardner says to aim for only a third of the forage to be weeds.
“Weeds can be nutritious, but they also have some anti-beneficial factors. For example, they might be high in nitrates, and that could be a problem in terms of nitrate toxicity, they might also contain oxalates, which bind calcium, maybe [they’ll have] glucosinolates, which will be very irritating,” explains Lardner.
Crop rotation management can also play a role in managing pastures well in drought conditions, with Lardner sharing different rotation options, including a rest rotation where the land gets a full season versus a delayed rest rotation where the land gets a break but is usually visited by the herd later that year.