Butte County grasslands still stressed

2013-06-20T10:21:00Z Butte County grasslands still stressedBy Colleen Brunner, Butte County Post Tri State Neighbor

NEWELL, S.D. - Full or nearly full stock dams and reservoirs. Lush green grass everywhere and a beautiful countryside that has not been seen in several years. With the abundant rainfall in the late part of May and early June, people look around and breathe a sigh of relief. But we might be taking that breath just a little too soon according to Shane Deranleau, Rangeland Management Specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Mitchell.

"The areas around Newell, Vale, and Nisland are in a lower precipitation zone where most folks know every drop counts," said Deranleau. "The trick is, when it rains on a person's place, where does that moisture go? Infiltration is key and is highly dependent on grassland, root, and soil health. Generally, the better condition you leave your grassland (residue height, rest and recovery, diverse plant composition) the more optimum the root zone, soil biological life, and soil particle spacing. This allows a more efficient infiltration, which is especially important on higher clay soils. Currently, this area is behind up to 25 percent of normal grassland production according to the latest climate station data. The recent precipitation has been critical, but we will need to conserve every drop we get, and pray for more!"

Deranleau, along with Stan Boltz, the State Rangeland Management Specialist, Mitch Faulkner, Rapid City area Rangeland Management Specialist came up with a plan to help South Dakotan's.

"We began developing a tool that integrated South Dakota precipitation data with actual production data we had all collected, along with hay land and grassland production from decades of inventory and study," said Deranleau. "In the end, we set forth to create a South Dakota Drought Grassland Specific Assessment Tool that could calibrate precipitation to South Dakota grassland growth to assist landowners making management decisions."

So, as we look out at the beautiful green grass and take that relieving breath, these specialists warn that things are not quite as they seem. But they have a plan and a tool to help farmers and ranchers for the long-term situation.

According to the USDA NRCS May 2013 Drought Planning Update, in 2012, drought conditions impacted a majority of South Dakota grasslands. Many people felt the effects in the condition of grassland, livestock conditions, and in their agricultural operations. Current grassland drought conditions reflect the effects of both precipitation and soil moisture deficits originating in 2012. Using current drought conditions in conjunction with historic average long-term data future grazing land production across South Dakota can be projected. South Dakota grasslands typically reach peak production by early July. This data is used to predict the potential peak forage production.

Parts of South Dakota grasslands are already experiencing drought in 2013, according to the NRCS. Even with average “normal” precipitation amounts coming at the right time, much of South Dakota will continue to experience drought this year.

Recovery from current drought conditions depends on soil moisture recharge, precipitation timing, and precipitation amounts. Moisture infiltration to the soil profile is needed to get out of the drought status. Unfortunately, high intensity, short-lived precipitation (intense spring thunderstorms) typically results in more runoff than infiltration. Having a healthy reserve and diversity of forage in pastures will enable optimal grassland infiltration by slowing runoff and maintaining a healthy soil structure that maximizes precipitation availability.

In early May, by utilizing the Drought Assessment Tool, the total precipitation needed to get to normal forage production for Belle Fourche and Butte County was 5.5" in May and 6.2" in June. This means that with all the moisture in Butte County since mid-May, approximately 38" in the five reporting stations, according to Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCORaHS) http://www.cocorahs.org/, a website utilized by the National Weather Service with volunteer weather watchers, Butte County is just now getting back to normal. Here are the precipitation breakdowns from the five stations. SD-BT-4, Newell 2.8 ENE, 7.59"; SD-BT-6, Belle Fourche 5.3 NE, 6.75"; SD-BT-7, Belle Fourche 29.5 NNW, 6.82; SD-BT-9, Newell 3.7 SW, 8.18" and SD-BT-10, Newell 6.5 ENE, 8.52".

"A large portion of South Dakota grasslands suffered multiple impacts in 2012 and 2013 that we are trying to recover from," said Deranleau. "In 2012, a lack of growing season precipitation potentially decreased root reserves and “mined” soil moisture. A lack of 2012 fall precipitation, critical for soil moisture reserve, left little accessible soil moisture for spring 2013 growth. Finally, in some areas, a cooler spring lent fewer growing degree days for early growth.”

Deranleau said a majority of the 2013 growing season precipitation has disappeared quickly and began refilling the soil profile. Spring reports from landowners cited little to no soil moisture down to 6 feet across South Dakota in the early days of May. It is now June and portions of eastern South Dakota are just now approaching “normal” grassland soil moisture conditions, while many portions in the west are still limited.

"The latest precipitation has been critical; we cannot proceed with normal grassland production conditions without first having a healthy soil moisture reserve. We are getting closer, however, a majority of our grassland production usually reaches peak in July. We should see short term green up, which will not make up for the reduced production, but it will hopefully set us up for a closer to “normal” year next year, provided we get adequate fall (soil recharge) precipitation this fall."

The NRCS said that the key point is that grasslands, especially in the western portions of South Dakota, are already stressed. Management will make a significant difference in both future grassland condition and how quickly it bounces back. A great rule of thumb is to give plenty of rest and recovery from grazing, and to not take more than half the weight of grasses or about 1/3 the normal height.

Deranleau said the biggest bit of advice he can share is to do anything that will alleviate stress on grazing lands immediately to both minimize production losses and root reductions until Butte County and South Dakota get back to a "normal" year.

"Many of the landowners I work with point out grassland recovery of paddocks heavily utilized versus more lightly utilized following a drought makes a big difference," said Deranleau. "Seeing is believing!"

Optimizing forage residue minimizes soil surface evaporation, optimizes plant root depth and size, and allows a quicker, resilient recovery with less bare ground and stress for “weeds”. It is always wise to have a drought contingency plan in place. This is a plan that identifies action items in normal periods, risk periods and drought.

"Describe what triggers initiate the drought phases, whether it is plant vigor and condition, overall production, precipitation records, etc., and follow your plan," encouraged Deranleau. "The Natural Resource Conservation Service can assist in (no contract) development of operation specific drought contingency plans along with recommendations such as culling, early weaning, delayed turn out, using alternative forages, etc.. We all want to be optimists in a drought and hope that the next shot of rain will pull us through. It is important to keep precipitation records and begin minimizing grazing impacts now. Live by the “take half/ leave half” mantra, allow 45 days of rest (minimum) before regrazing, and try to increase and maintain plant diversity for infiltration. And please, by all means, contact your local USDA-NRCS office for drought specific grazing planning and drought contingency planning!"

Article from: http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/communities/newell/butte-county-grasslands-still-stressed/article_560ef323-d044-5933-b6a5-1f7c3523b229.html

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