“We were very dry, and the pastures were looking poor, but this rain seems to have helped.”
– JANE THORNTON
Aweek of rain has led to localized flooding in some parts, but the moisture has helped to get pastures off to a good start around the province.
“The moisture was very welcome, in some places,” said Pam Iwanchysko, a MAFRI forage specialist based in Dauphin.
The Ethelbert area, which sits right in the shadow of Duck Mountain Provincial Park, got “dumped on” with over three inches of rain last week, which has led to major flooding in some areas.
“Those guys aren’t happy, because they got too much,” she said.
Pasture growth in her area has been “fairly decent.” Since the snow melted about a month ago, the warm temperatures coaxed the grasses up out of the ground, but since then, a week of cloudy skies, rain and low overnight temperatures have stalled the process.
“It got down to -6 C last night with the wind chill,” she said in an interview May 6. The daytime weather last week wasn’t so hot either, and colder temperatures were predicted into the weekend.
Some cattle were spotted out on pasture already, but Iwanchysko added that they probably shouldn’t have been out there yet, even with the early spring that has seen some seeding done.
“That’s just because it’s at that crucial stage, when the plants are just starting to get going,” she said, adding that because the grass is using up carbohydrate root reserves now, getting bitten off might set them back for some time.
Souris-based MAFRI pasture and rangeland specialist Jane Thornton echoed her comments.
Letting the cows out too early can cut overall pasture yields by as much as 30 per cent, according to research done in the dry grazing lands of southern Alberta.
For those with stockpiled grass from last July with lots of residue left over, it’s not too early. But on pastures pounded hard during the prior season, putting the cows out might end up costing them in the end.
“If we have a hot, dry season like they are claiming we will, those people might get caught,” she said.
With the possible exception of the extreme southwest corner, much of Thornton’s area has benefited from at least 1.5 inches of rain spread out over a week.
“We were very dry, and the pastures were looking poor, but this rain seems to have helped,” she said, adding that although it’s still early to predict a good cropping season, the hay and alfalfa fields are coming up well.
“The pastures are looking pretty good, but we certainly are early,” said Thornton. “Normally, at this time of year, we’re hardly seeing any grass.”
At least one producer with crested wheat grass is benefiting from an early start to the grazing season, she added. The early, cool-season perennial thrives on the well-drained sandy soils in the southwest, and if established, makes for good spring production.
Larry Fischer, a MAFRI farm production adviser based in Gladstone, said about three inches of rain had fallen in his area over the past week.
“We need some heat; it’s pretty cool now,” he said. “The pastures are starting to come up now, but once we get some heat they’ll really explode.”
With an ample hay crop put up last summer, nobody has run out yet, and so no cattle are out on pasture yet in his area.
“I think within a week, if we get some heat I think they’ll be ready for pasture,” he said.
Tim Clarke, a forage and pasture specialist based in Ashern, said the Interlake is finally getting a break from a two-year deluge that saw pastures flooded and hay crops ruined.
Last week, about two inches of rain and some snow fell. With pastures saturated, that’s all that’s needed for now, he said.
“They’re starting to grow, but it’s been pretty cool,” he said last Friday. “We need some heat.”
With feeding yards mucky and hay supplies running out, some ranchers have turned their cattle out on pasture, even though the grass is still too short.
“They think that as soon as it’s green, you should put them out there – but you shouldn’t,” he said.
“You get more production out of your pastures if you wait until you have four to six inches growth rather than two inches.”
That’s because what’s above the ground is a mirror image of the root mass below. If the grass on top never gets a chance to grow, the roots never develop either. With less root length to reach out and gather up moisture and nutrients, production suffers.
“Your roots can only take in water and nutrients based on how deep they go,” he said.
The general mood in the Interlake is improving with the rising price of cattle, he added. Older ranchers who have been waiting since BSE hit in 2003 to exit the industry are excited about the odds of finally being able to pull the trigger this year.
For new entrants, that could mean cheaper pasture rents, too, he added.
“There’s more pasture around because there’s way less cattle around,” said Clarke. [email protected]