Stick to what you know to get through tough seasons

FSR drought forage

Which grazing principles will carry you through 2021? For the first time in recent memory, I hear the “drought” word beginning to be used this week. Now, it is actually raining while I type, but three days ago, I was in a discussion where meteorologists mentioned conditions developing that could be the precursor to early drought to the north and west of my location.

Often, by late July it comes up, if not before then, but I am starting to hear about it earlier this year than has been the trend. They say soil moisture is moving lower, and combined with other factors may be leading toward a dry future.

The good news, for me, at least, is that the drought discussion is really occurring somewhere else, and not actually in my region. But we would probably agree locally that this year is running drier than some of our more recent spring seasons.

Weather changes all the time, but it does have ripple effects across our agricultural endeavors, so I pulled up my trusty extension newsletters for some review of previous droughty seasons. For the record I’m not predicting anything here: as I have already mentioned, it is raining as I type.

What you know

I will rely on the wisdom from one of our experienced colleagues who said in 2012, “Drought? Stick to what you know!”

In other words, we cannot control the rain or weather, but we can make choices about our management no matter what nature brings our way. If we are patient and stay the course according to sound grazing management principles, we often come out on the other side in good shape.

I am reminded of some distractions I have been fending off as I wrestle with always being one tool away from having just what I need. A little bit of planning and a little bit of skill can often make up for the things I think I need, but really don’t. And that is true of grazing, I think.

We have the animals, we have fields and paddocks, we have water resources, and even as it all works well, we can usually count on a period of dry weather to throw off what should be the perfect grazing season.

How do we plan for that? It’s all about holding to known principles and trying to stay the course.

Don’t overgraze

The take half, leave half principle is perhaps one of the easier grazing principles to remember. When it is hot and dry, leaving that 4 inch grass residue allows for photosynthesis and regrowth, shades the soil to keep it cooler and helps reduce soil moisture loss. Resting the pasture until grass forage is back to 8-10 inches is a main goal for grazing.

It is easy to cheat on this, but that can start the downward spiral to overgrazing, which wears out the forage.

But again, life happens and sometimes we cannot wait for that perfect regrowth to happen, and thus, we have our sacrifice lots in order to maintain the desired order of things somewhere else.

We might feed some hay sometimes, too, but that is a tool that can allow us to rest the land, and have somewhere to graze later in the season, which should result in less total hay fed throughout the whole year.


Really, this is a caution about overgrazing pasture and not a weather discussion, but the two often go hand-in-hand.

It is easy to see what is happening on the surface of a pasture, but what about the roots?

Leaf removal by grazing or mowing results in roughly similar reductions in root death. At the same time, we need leaf matter on the surface; we are trying to grow roots in soil and if we ignore this, we accelerate degradation of the entire system. A healthy pasture needs some rest and some residual leaf matter to work and keep the cycle of growth going.

When. We are wise to think in terms of planning for “when” it gets dry as opposed to “if,” and assume we are going to be under pressure sometime, if we are not already. Soil fertility, nitrogen applications, warm season grass stands, weed control,and stocking rates are just a few more tools we have in our toolbox.

The bottom line is, we need to stay the course when it comes to grazing principles. That will help carry us through the imperfect season. This has all been done before, and it is rare that something new or unheard of comes our way. So with that in mind, which grazing principles are you using to carry you through both the peaks and valleys of the growing season?


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