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Finding the Balance – Ranching, Grazing, and Drought

By Central Texas Conservation Partnership
The Hill Country Steward

100% of the Hill Country is currently in a drought – ranging from severe to exceptional. Since 2000, drought has cost the State of Texas between $20-50 billion – making it one of the most expensive and far-reaching natural disasters facing the US. So, what does this cost translate to for your local land steward or rancher?

Good land stewardship and ranch management is more about managing risk than maximizing production. Maintaining the best balance between plant and animal needs should be your main management goal.  

Grazing is a tool for influencing plants, soil, energy flow, as well as water and nutrient cycles. It is key to plan with plant, soil, and animal performance in mind since certain grazing practices can change the plant composition and health of a pasture, for better or for worse. Grazing management is accomplished by controlling the timing (when), intensity (how much), and frequency (how often) of grazing. 

Timing: Grazing during the dormant season is less likely to affect production the following spring than grazing during the growing season. A plant that is heavily grazed early in the growing season may not have a chance to recover if it is repeatedly grazed. 

Intensity: The more leaf area removed, the slower a plant recovers. Intensity depends on grazing pressure—the number of animals, kind of animals, and length of the grazing period.

Frequency: Livestock are picky and consume the tastiest plants first, so if the grazing period is too long, the same plants may be grazed repeatedly. Plants grazed too often lose root mass, produce fewer leaves and stems, and are more susceptible to drought and other disturbances. Remember, a plant grazed several times during a single season must recover each time.

A Note About Numbers: Determining the correct number of animals to put in a pasture is one of the most important decisions a manager makes. Animal density must be balanced to avoid damage to plants and soils. 

The amount of forage to be left ungrazed depends on the type of plants desired, your goals for improving the range, and the amount of risk you want to take. So how does this lead to long-term financial success? It’s all about balance and attention! Moderate stocking rates and rotating systems that allow both a graze and rest cycle are key to keeping your stocking rate balanced with available forage. By paying close attention to plant growth on the land, you can react in time to avoid overgrazing, especially in a drought.  

So, what about this drought?

Severe drought can weaken or wipe out grazing grasses. With conservative or moderate grazing, more forage is produced than with heavy grazing, and the recovery period is shorter. However, it takes FIVE TO SEVEN YEARS for rangeland to recover fully after a drought – which means ranchers will be feeling the effects of this hot, dry summer until at least 2027. 

To learn more and connect with folks who care about your piece of Texas just as much as you do, visit www.texasconservation.org. If you have questions related to stewardship or conservation, you can email them to DearStew@texasconservation.org and you might just see them answered in a future column. And be sure to come back next month as we dive into stewardship as it relates to our region’s wildlife. Looking forward to learning more with you. – The Hill Country Steward

The Hill Country Steward – not a person, but a partnership of local experts dedicated to sharing the best information, tips, and lessons learned. Got questions? Send them to DearStew@texasconservation.org. Learn more at www.texasconservation.org.

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