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How to manage grassland stressed by drought

Monitoring multiple pastures gives options to graze or rest.

The severe drought gripping large parts of the Northern Plains and other places last year was one of the worst rancher Jerry Doan has seen in the four decades he’s run cattle on his family’s Black Leg Ranch in McKenzie, North Dakota. 

Despite the lack of moisture, Doan and his wife, Renae, along with their three adult sons — Jeremy, Jay, and Jayce — pulled the ranch and the cattle through without having to destock. The grass-management steps they take before the next grazing season will determine how well their tame and native grasslands will rebound from stress.

“Some pastures we ended up grazing heavy last summer, and coming into spring, we’re going to be cautious about putting cattle back on those pastures, even though they might green up well and look like they’re ready to graze early,” Doan says.

The caution Doan describes is simply one piece in their grazing-management puzzle centering around the 100 grazing cells encasing the ranch’s grasslands. While some cells were grazed a little heavy last year, others were grazed more lightly or have more robust grass stands. These healthier cells were scheduled to be the first grazed in the spring.

29348_Jerry and Renae Doan

Jerry and Renae Doan

Multiple Grazing Cells

The family’s planned management of multiple grazing cells provides the wide range of grass growth that gives their grassland the resilience to adapt to changes in weather. The Doans practice high-density, short-duration grazing, with long rests for the grass. They stock grazing cells with livestock numbers matched to forage availability permitting a grazing period of one to six days, with a three-day grazing spell being most common.

“We monitor the grass constantly,” Doan says. In general, they aim to move cattle out of a cell after they’ve eaten half the available grass, leaving plenty of plant material to maintain energy reserves in the roots and to generate regrowth. 

“We prefer grazing each cell only once each growing season,” he says, “but in cells that have been grazed early in the season — like in May — there’ll be plenty of regrowth we may regraze in August or early September. We like to provide grass at least 60 to 75 days of rest before being regrazed.”

Supported by a system of buried water lines carrying water to cells, their grazing strategy generally provides resilience to drought. However, last year’s drought conditions stretched their reserves to the limit, testing the boundaries of their grassland’s resilience.

“Even under the best management conditions, Mother Nature can start throwing curveballs that make you look like an idiot,” Doan says. Despite decades of drought preparation, his ranch, like so many others, scrambled to adjust to the severity.

“We typically can get through one drought year, but last year was really the second year of drought,” he says. “Our subsoil moisture was gone. You know it’s a bad drought when all the waterholes and sloughs dry up. If we didn’t have water pipelines, we wouldn’t have had a cow on the place.”

The Doans carried their livestock and grass through the year by considering all their options and juggling resources.

29348_cattle in field

“We tried to balance holding onto cattle and keeping our cash flow going without overstressing our grassland,” Doan says. “We often found ourselves fudging one way or the other.”

The “fudging” resulted in some cells getting grazed slightly longer than usual
in an effort to help sustain the cattle on grasslands with reduced forage availability. “After moving the cattle through the grassland rotation, we grazed some of our alfalfa and some lowland areas,” he says.

Later in the season they grazed cover crops planted on their cropland acres, followed by grazing the cattle on cornstalks after pulling calves and young stock from the herd. Those feed resources carried the cattle until early February, when the Doans started feeding hay.

Coming into spring, the Doans were planning their grazing strategy after considering their resources and monitoring the grasslands’ forage availability.

“We’ve got cornfields yet to graze, and we may put the cattle in them early on in the spring,” Doan says. “We’ve also got pastures that we didn’t graze much last year, and we can graze them first, giving the pastures we grazed a little hard more time to catch up.”

System Offers Flexibility

Having the ability to juggle cattle grazing with growing conditions — permitting forages to rebound from stress — couldn’t happen under the continuous grazing Doan practiced decades ago. With drought- stressed forage struggling to rebound across an entire pasture, there was no flexibility in the previous system to provide early- or late-season grazing without further stressing the grass.

“If we would have stayed with continuous grazing, our forages and soils would have become depleted,” he says.

Doan started moving away from continuous grazing more than 30 years ago, after he began studying holistic management.

“We began rotational grazing by cross fencing one pasture to make two,” he says, “and then by adding a third pasture, we were able to move cattle around three pastures. Since then, it’s been a continuous evolution toward our present system.”

29348_Jerry Doan

Over the decades, Black Leg Ranch has earned numerous regional and national conservation awards. As a result of the recognition, organizations frequently invite Doan to speak about regenerative grazing practices. 
He encourages listeners to begin managing grazing lands in ways that give forages periods of rest from grazing.

“Even creating a minimal rotation by cross fencing a pasture into just four cells helps the grass,” he says, “and then constantly monitor your resource. Learn from your mistakes. Take notes; take photos.

“You’ve constantly got to adapt to Mother Nature,” he says. “One of our biggest challenges as grassland managers is overcoming our tendencies to want to manage by formulas. Instead, we’ve got to learn to continually adapt to changing conditions.”

Keys to Resilience

Fall tillering of plants and grazing history in grass pastures will determine how grasslands rebound from drought stress. “After last year’s drought, some of the grasses will have shut down or died, and the remaining plants will still be stressed coming into this spring,” says Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University Extension range specialist. “Grasses that have a history of overuse through continuous grazing will have a hard- er time rebounding than grasses that have a history of better management.”

Fall tillering is key to vigorous regrowth of grass in spring. Tillering can occur when plants are rested from grazing and have sufficient moisture to grow new leaves. “It’s critical for tillers to develop in the fall,” Sedivec says. “If that doesn’t happen, the plant’s ability to regrow rapidly in the spring is reduced by 10 to 14 days.”

Pastures receiving rain last fall permitting the growth of tillers and where the management history has been good could be set up for a normal spring turnout of cattle, he says. Where tillering did not occur, Sedivec suggests at least a two-week delay in normal turnout time to give stressed grasses a chance to regrow.

Not providing the extra spring rest in stressed pastures could cost producers lost potential in grass growth. “If you turn cattle out too early on stressed pastures, you could set the grasses back enough that you could lose as much as 50% of the potential biomass over the course of the growing season,” he adds.

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Jerry Doan 

Kevin Sedivec 

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