Rangeland management during droughtAre You Ready for the Next
Although we don't know what the future holds, we can be certain there
will be droughts and livestock producers will be faced with the painful
dilemma of reducing stocking rates (grazing pressure) or damaging their
This DROUGHT CHECKLIST examines some of the measures you might consider
to reduce the impacts of drought on your livestock operation and the range
resource, and hasten recovery when the drought is over.
Effects of Drought on Rangeland
- low soil moisture levels limiting plant growth and reducing forage
- limited root growth, which makes range plants less able to reach
scarce soil moisture.
- Over a series of drought or dry years, heavily grazed ranges will
show a shift in plant species to weedy, shallow-rooted, less productive
- Drought effects may be more rapid on pastures that have coarse
textured soils (ie: sands and gravels); be prepared to accept stocking
rate reductions on these types of soils during drought.
Effects of Drought on LivestockReduced forage yields during
drought will mean a declining plane of nutrition for cows and calves. This
will have significant adverse effects on livestock production including
- reduced gains due to increased energy expenditure while foraging,
- poor body condition in cows by fall and higher wintering costs,
- more open cows and late conception, which means fewer and smaller
calves the subsequent year,
- lower weight gains for calves, and
- disease problems like dust pneumonia.
Range Management During DroughtDuring drought conditions then,
the goals for the manager are to minimize damage to the range and stay in
business. Heavy to moderate use of rangeland during drought reduces the
production and profit potential for future years. The following practices
present a variety of different options that we have seen practised by
farmers and ranchers during drought conditions in the past decade. Some of
these may be appropriate recommendations for your circumstances:
- Recognize the effect of drought on forage production. If grass
growth has started, early grazing during drought will further stress
range plants and leave them with lower energy reserves.
- Reduce stocking levels to balance livestock needs with the forage
- Carry-over is a portion of each years plant growth that is left
ungrazed. As carry-oveer breaks down it becomes litter, the dead plant
material on the soil surface. Litter insulates rangeland by reducing
soil temperatures and water loss. When moisture is scarce, rangelands
with adequate litter reserves will produce more forage than those with
less litter. Allow light to moderate use of forage to enable plants to
maintain their present level of vigour (plant health) and retain litter.
- Rest or defer (delay) grazing in those fields that were heavily
grazed in the previous grazing season.
- Graze first those fields rested or deferred in the previous grazing
- Take advantage of grazing opportunities in rest, reserve or buffer
- Distribute cattle across more fields in those areas where rangelands
are more sensitive to erosion (i.e. sand hills).
- Focus on grazing management tools that will improve livestock
distribution such as herding or fencing out stockwater sources.
Cropland and Tame Pasture:
- Consider seeding annuals as an emergency source of forage. In the
spring, seed winter annuals for supplementary pasture. Spring-seeded
fall rye and winter wheat remain vegetative throughout the summer and
will respond with growth to any showers that occur.
- Use your cattle to harvest light or failed hay and annual crops.
- Use last year's crested wheatgrass litter where present.
(Supplementation is usually required to compensate for the poor
nutritional status of this litter). However, resist the temptation to
regraze crested wheatgrass stands after August 15th (if they
regrow), otherwise next spring's forage production may be reduced
proportionally, especially if drought persists.
- Make maximum safe use of current growth of seeded pastures (e.g.,
crested wheatgrass), which are better adapted to spring grazing than
- Make full use of stubble fields after harvest.
- Fertilization of some tame pastures in good moisture years can take
pressure off of other pastures, to allow for forage stand condition
recovery from drought. Fertilization will improve productivity, increase
the root volume of the stand, and make it more drought tolerant.
Water, Salt, Supplements and Feed:
- Extend your feeding period.
- Place salt, emergency water supplies or supplements in areas that
previously were lightly grazed.
- Use fields that will run out of water first. This will reduce
grazing pressure on fields with better water supplies.
- Spread cattle over more fields where water levels are low, and where
large herds may foul low dams or dugouts.
- Ensure that cattle have adequate salt. Some poisonous range plants
are salt accumulators and be more attractive to livestock during
- Consider use of a portable stockwater supply. For smaller
operations, a stock tank on a portable vehicle may also be an excellent
way to improve livestock distribution on a pasture during drought.
- Fence off water sources that are low. Pumping water to a remote site
will improve water quality for livestock and reduce water losses due to
livestock activity in water.
- Have all windmill floats in good repair and inspect seats on valves
on a regular basis; investigate use of capped storage tanks to reduce
water evaporation and to preserve water quality. Stock tanks for storing
water will also help to guarantee livestock access to water during
windless days, or when windmills fail.
- Consider the purchase of portable assets such as electric fence and
poly pipe so that remote stockwater sites can be set up. These two tools
will help you to improve livestock distribution when water is scarce.
- Remember that snowfences for dugouts have proven to be effective for
longterm dugout water supply.
Managing Before and After a Drought Once the drought has ended,
range managers must give the rangeland a chance to recover so grass
production can return to normal and build to the highest level of range
condition possible. Proper management after the drought has ended will
provide long-term benefits to your livestock operation and provide for a
stable forage supply.
- Review your range management plan and the effect drought has had on
range condition and vigour.
- Plan and implement a grazing system that will build plant vigour and
re-establish litter reserves. Moderate to light rates of stocking and
deferral of spring grazing will be important. Some questions you may
- Can the adverse effects of spring use be minimized by altering the
period of spring use among fields?
- Can a limited amount of marginal cropland be seeded to tame
pasture to provide complementary grazing for relief of spring grazing
on native grassland?
- Can a grazing system like rest-rotation be implemented for badly
depleted grasslands (this involves a full year of rest for certain
fields to increase litter accumulation, improve plant vigour and
hasten range recovery)?
- Do not be hasty in re-grassing deteriorated range. Recovery can be
quite rapid with the right management. Proper management is the cheapest
- Rangeland in good to excellent condition provides the best
protection against drought. This ensures the best possible mix of
drought-adapted, deep-rooted and productive plant species that are
naturally present on your rangeland.
Good long-term management means managing for the dry years. This will
benefit the range, improve productivity, and provide a more stable,
reliable forage supply.
Lacey, J. 1988. Tips for dealing with drought on range. Montana State
University - Extension Service. 2 pp.
Willms, W.D., S. Smoliak and A.W. Bailey. 1986. Herbage production
following litter removal on Alberta native grasslands. Journal of Range
Willms, W.D., S.M. McGinn and J.F. Dormaar. 1993. Influence of litter
on herbage production in the mixed prairie. J. Range Manage. 46:320-324.
USDA. 1982. Are you ready for the next drought? Soil Conservation
Service Publication, Bozeman, Montana. 12 pp.
Most of the information for this checklist was adapted from an article
written by Barry W. Adams, Public Lands Branch - Southern Region, Alberta
Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (Range Note #14, 1992). This Range
Note was abridged by Chris Nykoluk, Range Management Section, PFRA,
Regina. For more information, please call your local Range Management
Specialist, Extension Agrologist, or PFRA at (306)780-5066.