A panel of range and pasture experts says that while drought's effects on pastures can last into succeeding years, ranchers and other livestock producers can manage drought-stressed pasture through four steps.
Manage grazing conservatively
"Don't expect drought-stressed pastures to return to pre-drought condition overnight," says Dr. Jerry Volesky, Extension range and forage specialist at North Platte, Nebraska. "Even with rain, there may not be an adequate root system there to support the production of new plants, although existing plants will likely increase in vigor."
On native pastures, some growing season rest is critical to recovery. In the Northern Plains, even a few weeks delay in turnout will help, Volesky says. In the Southwest, the ideal is rest for a full growing season, says Dr. Wayne Hanselka, Extension range specialist at Corpus Christi, Texas.
Weakened grass plants, thin stands and bare ground, combined with moisture, make a recipe for robust germination of broadleaf weeds, especially annuals. Usually, the weed seed is already there, but a new supply may have arrived in purchased hay.
It usually takes more than a single moist year for native perennial grasses to improve in density, says Dr. Patricia Johnson, a range science researcher for South Dakota State University, stationed in Rapid City. So weeds may have a long period of opportunity, and many weed seeds remain viable for years. "Be careful where you feed, and remember to visit those feeding sites in years to come, to watch for imported weeds," she says.
Fertilize improved pastures
"Proper soil pH and adequate soil nutrients always enhance forage competitiveness, whether you've had a drought or not," Ball says. Pastures with poor fertility and low pH will be particularly slow to recover after a drought.
Prepare for the next drought
"After a drought, it takes five to seven years to recover to a post-drought level, and, on average, we have a drought every three years," Hanselka says. Proper stocking and grazing are critical.
Seasonal grazing rotations – not grazing the same pasture at the same time every year – will improve pasture health in drought or normal weather, Volesky says.