For Release September 24, 2002

A Droughtís Impact on Grasslands

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

When I was in West Africa, in April, I had the chance to observe first hand the impact that multi-year droughts, coupled with overgrazing, was doing to native grasslands. These were areas that were on the edge of a desert to begin with. Once the grass disappeared, cattle and goats started grazing on the shrubs and then the trees. Once the vegetation is gone, the desert finds it very easy to spread. Once valuable grazing land becomes desert and reclamation will be difficult at best. The Sahal Desert is moving south across Senegal at a 25 year average rate of 2 miles per year.

Last week I was in extreme southeast Utah. My wife and I were visiting ancient Anasazi Indian dwelling sites. We had to travel through some areas where the grasslands have been in a long drought not unlike what we have seen the past several years. In several locations, grazing had not been controlled and the result was staggering. There was literally nothing growing and thousands of acres of bare soil. Recent rains had run rampant off these barren hillsides. There was no vegetation to slow down the intense rains. Low water crossings had had to be plowed out to remove all the soil that had moved off these pastures.

An approaching cold front was triggering large thunderstorms. We beat a hasty retreat back through these grasslands to avoid being caught in those low water crossings. As the gust front hit those pastures, it became an instant dust storm. This dust storm literally chased us the 40 miles back to our hotel! If the livestock are removed from these pastures, or rather kept off these pastures, it will probably take several years, and some intensive management, to return them to productivity.

Seeing those dust storms in Utah suddenly seemed to bring everything into focus. We are experiencing the same kind of weather extremes that have created the two situations I just described. Several years of abnormally low rainfall have created a stress condition for the native pasture grasses. These grasses can survive this stress IF humans donít stress them further with grazing management. While it seems hard to picture, we could wind up with a very similar result to what Senegal and Utah are seeing.

I drive around the Flint Hills, and other grasslands of Kansas, and I see pastures that have all the desirable grasses grubbed down table top flat. I see invasion of these pastures by weeds, brush and undesirable grasses. Many landowners see weeds and brush invasion as a problem. They are not THE real problem, but merely a symptom of the root cause.

To solve this problem do we remove cattle completely from a pasture ecosystem? No! We know that the clipping action of cattle, and other herbivores, is necessary to stimulate the plant. But we do need to adjust the management of these pastures. Even with normal precipitation from this point on, it will take the grass several years to recover. Many pastures will need to have stocking rates reduced 35% to 65%, for a couple of years, to allow the grasses to regain their former vigor. Other pasture management will also have to be tuned up to discourage the undesirable plants and encourage the desirable ones.

This isnít Utah and this isnít Senegal. But grasslands have a lot of similarities and it scares me to see the same thing starting to happen hear that has happened in those locations. Letís start evaluating our pastures and starting laying out five year plans to keep our Flint Hills the productive grasslands they should be!


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