LINCOLN, Neb. -- Limited rainfall accompanied by high temperatures has left many pastures in poor condition and producers needing to change grazing management, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln forage specialist said.

Although some producers have no choice but to keep livestock out on pasture during the summer months, there are ways to manage grazing that will keep cattle from permanently damaging grass growth.

"Many cow/calf operations don't really have feeding facilities available or the capability of putting cattle some place other than pastureland," said Bruce Anderson, UNL forage specialist. "Pasture ends up being one of the few places where hay or supplements can be fed to support animals."

Anderson recommends limiting damage to pastures as much as possible. Movement of cattle causes the crowns of grass to break open and weaken the plant. Even continuous nibbling by cattle can cause damage, especially when it occurs before conditions are favorable for regrowth, he said.

"Any damage we cause during the feeding period simply slows down the rate of recovery of the plants once we start getting rain again," the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources specialist said.

There are two ways to limit this damage and still keep cattle on pasture. The first solution is to establish a sacrifice paddock, a small area converted into a temporary feedlot. Although the sacrifice area will be unusable for grazing for the remainder of the season, it leaves the rest of the pasture in better condition due to reduced traffic and grazing, Anderson said.

Often the best pasture ground makes the best sacrifice paddock, Anderson said. Good pasture ground will be easier to reseed and more likely to succeed the following year.

The second solution is known as the moving feed bunk. Producers move the feeding area every couple of days to concentrate plant damage for brief periods at a time and give remaining areas a chance to recover, Anderson said.

A common concern among producers is that leftover hay on the ground will suffocate the plants beneath. However, in most situations leftover hay and manure provide additional nutrients and balance out the negative effect, Anderson said.

The main thing to remember when grazing dry pastures is that common grazing rules no longer apply, Anderson said. For example, producers can't expect grazed pastures to regrow when needed moisture isn't available. Therefore, it usually is in the producer's best interest to graze pastures completely.

"Once the soil gets so dry that a heavy rain is needed for any regrowth to occur, grazing management changes," Anderson said. "At that point it is best to leave only enough grass to protect your soil from eroding. Any grass left behind will not regrow when it is this dry, and probably will be gone or worthless by the time cattle return later."

If a pasture has been grazed completely and it does rain, producers need to wait at least six weeks for regrowth before grazing the pasture again. Grazing regrowth too soon prevents plants from recovering from the stress of drought and can weaken plants even more, he said.

Some producers may consider green chopping or grazing corn when conditions are dry. When dryland corn fields are too dry to produce much grain, producers benefit by salvaging their corn crop, providing feed for livestock and reducing damage to pastures, Anderson said.

The main concern with green chopping is high nitrates, he said. To reduce the risk, stalks should be cut high and never allowed to heat in a wagon or feed bunk. Producers should only chop enough for one feeding at a time and feed immediately after chopping.

Anderson suggests grazing corn as a cheaper and safer alternative.

"With little or no grain, corn is similar to other summer annual grasses, except producers don't need to worry about regrowth," he said. "Corn leaves and stalks often contain more total daily nutrients and protein than more commonly used grasses."

The most effective method of grazing corn is to strip graze using a highly visible electric fence. Strip grazing prevents cattle from trampling corn and causing it to go to waste, Anderson said.

In these situations, producers should first train cattle to react to an electric fence to keep them from running through, he said.

SOURCE: IANR News Service, University of Nebraska.