Jerry Volesky, Range and Forage Specialist
Total annual precipitation during 2021 at the Gudmundsen Sandhills Lab (GSL) was 16.65 inches which was 2.89 inches below the long-term average (Table 1). More importantly, precipitation during the primary part of the growing season (April through August) was about 70% of the long-term average.
In 2021, overall upland range forage production at GSL was 14% below the long-term average (Table 2). This production deficit primarily came from warm-season grasses which were affected by the below average precipitation in June, July, and August. Cool-season grass and sedge production was slightly higher than average, aided by the above average May precipitation.
2022 Spring and Early Summer Outlook
The relatively dry summer and fall of 2021 and winter 2022 across much of the state of Nebraska has led to depleted soil moisture conditions this spring. The US Drought Monitor for March 8 shows nearly all of Nebraska at either the moderate or severe drought category (Figure 1).
The NOAA long-term precipitation outlook for April, May, and June 2022 does suggest an enhanced probability of below normal condition across most of Nebraska (Figure 2). This 3-month period is critical for both cool- and warm-season pasture growth.
2022 Grazing Plans
While we always hope for the perfect amount of rain for the growing season, being prepared and having a drought plan can reduce the impact. Within these plans, options for a possible drought are essential. A drought plan can have varying levels of detail and complexity and can be customized to fit the specific needs of your operation. Key considerations should include projected cattle numbers (or stocking rates), turnout dates, the possibility of an extended period of hay feeding, the level of utilization on pastures last year, possible culling and weaning strategies, and a pasture use sequence for multiple pasture rotations. In addition, some farmers and ranchers have the opportunity to use planted annual forages to increase grazing capacity or to provide extra hay. Sourcing seed for this possibility should begin soon.
Some plans place an emphasis on critical or trigger dates. These are dates where one evaluates their total local precipitation up to that date. On May 1, for example, one could determine their total spring precipitation and compare that to long-term averages for their area. If precipitation totals are significantly below the averages, that could trigger a choice of several possible management actions such as an extended period of feeding hay or culling of some livestock. These actions are adjusted to account for varying levels of drought. Other important dates in relation to critical periods for rapid grass growth might include May 15, June 1, June 15, and July 1. For more information on range forage production and interactions with precipitation, please see the publication, Grazing Management with Variable Plant Production in the Nebraska Sandhills