Researchers warn ranchers against overgrazing in spring

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BISMARCK — Without rains this spring, North Dakota cattle ranchers could find themselves in another tough year following the 2017 drought.

Researchers say the key to making it through another dry year will be planning.

"You should be planning today," Kevin Sedivec, rangeland specialist and director of the North Dakota State University Central Grasslands Research Extension Center, said during a Tuesday, Feb. 27, conference hosted by U.S. Department of Agriculture Northern Great Plains Research Lab, NDSU, Bismarck State College and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Low soil moisture

Fall's precipitation in central and western North Dakota was from 60 to 70 percent of normal. That means the cool season grasses, which are the first to come up in the spring, are already low on moisture.

"Because we're dry coming in, that April, May and June precipitation is critical," Sedivec said. "We'll be in trouble if we don't get water."

Pastures were double stressed last year as many who were short on grass overgrazed late into the fall and winter.

"Cool season grasses in particular can be grazed too low in the winter," said Sedivec, pointing out that timing of spring grazing will be important.

Most of North Dakota's rangeland can handle a year of drought and overgrazing and come back without the need for reseeding, according to Sedivec.

"Our grasses are very resilient," said Sedivec, who recommended that ranchers defer grazing until June.

Sedivec also suggests ranchers consider planting a season long cover crop on crop lands that don't tend to have high yields.

"There's not a lot of hay out there," said Sedivec, who recommends a rotational grazing plan. "Season-long grazing is not very efficient."

A good rotation can force cows to eat a wider variety of plants rather than just their favorites.

"You can get a cow to eat something she may not want to eat," Sedivec said. "You can get cows to eat buckbrush .... We even got them to eat wormwood."

Looking long term

Adding new water sources can also be part of ranchers' plans.

"There was pastureland in the west that never got grazed because it had no water," said Sedivec, who suggests producers take the next five years to add infrastructure, such as wells and stock tanks.

The State Water Commission has more than $2 million available to help ranchers who want to drill new wells, lay pipe to connect to county water, connect a solar generator to help pump water or add a pasture tap, said Mike Noone of the commission's planning division. Half of a rancher's income must come from ranching to apply for up to three projects. The state will cover half the cost up to $3,500.

The commission has approved $1.5 million in projects to date. Of that, $918,000 has been paid out for 334 projects. The commission also granted extensions on 85 projects to date that were unable to be installed before winter. The commission still has about $525,000 it can award.

Researchers had two main tips for those growing crops.

"It's really important to retain what moisture you have," said USDA Northern Great Plains Research Lab soil scientist Mark Liebig, pointing to the research lab's no-till methods, which showed a major difference in yields during last year's drought.

Liebig also told farmers to consider crops that use less water, such as peas, lentils, flax and wheat, rather than high water users, including corn and soybeans.

Pasture options

If cows have to be turned out, there are a few pasture options that are better than others.

• A pasture with crested wheatgrass is a great place to turn out cows early, according to Kevin Sedivec, rangeland specialist and director of the North Dakota State University Central Grasslands Research Extension Center. "It's one of those grasses that can take beating. As long as you give it a recovery, it will come back," he said.

• Bromegrass is "a little more finicky," he said.

• Winter cereal crops, such as winter wheat, planted last fall are an option that can be grazed for three to four weeks.

• And if spring comes early, seeding cover crops, including brassica, a member of the mustard family, are an option for grazing into June.