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This NebFact addresses how to deal with an inadequate supply of forage for range beef cattle because of drought.
Precipitation can be below average for much of the Nebraska Panhandle and adjoining areas for prolonged periods. Prolonged drought results in an inadequate supply of forage for hundreds of thousands of beef cattle on millions of acres of rangeland. While some variation occurs among ranches and among pastures within a given ranch, all rangeland vegetation in arid environments like western Nebraska can be moderately to severely damaged by drought stress and/or excessive grazing. Consequently, even if soil moisture is not limited in the years following a drought, spring growth rate will be reduced and total annual forage production can be 20 to 50 percent below average on millions of acres of rangeland.
Growth of below-ground plant parts in grasses is proportional to the amount of top growth each year. Combinations of drought-limited plant growth and/or excessive livestock grazing have dramatically reduced root growth, levels of stored energy, and formation of buds needed for future-year tillers.
Stocking rates following drought must be reduced at least 20 to 50 percent compared to long-term average pair-days per acre because a larger percentage of the drought year's plant growth should remain ungrazed to improve the effectiveness of precipitation. In the long run, it will be most cost effective to defer grazing in severely damaged pastures for a full growing season, until after a killing frost or until the following summer.
Failure to delay turnout and reduce stocking rates in the year following a drought would be a serious tactical mistake for long-term ranch survival.