Moisture conditions have improved across much of the state when compared to this time a year ago. Based on the US Drought Monitor for North Dakota, last year at the beginning of March, the entire state was abnormally dry with over 68 percent of the state considered to be in severe drought. This year, only around 52 percent of the state is classified as being abnormally dry and the area considered to be in severe drought has dropped to around 22 percent. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the drought has intensified to the extreme category for just over 5 percent of the state when compared to last year and the area encompassed by extreme drought conditions is basically northwest North Dakota covering Williams, Divide and a portion of McKenzie counties.
Based on that along with a below average seasonal precipitation outlook by the National Climate Prediction Center for this area during the June-July-August time period, it would appear likely that the drought is going to persist in this area into the 2022 growing season. Not news that anyone wants to hear but it has likely been on the minds of many during the course of this winter with the limited snow cover.
That doesn’t mean we should give up hope for the 2022 growing season. Annual crops still have a chance of reasonable production if we get timely rains during the growing season or if weather patterns happen to change.
Don’t be surprised if our rainfall pattern mimics last year with whatever amount of growing season precipitation that we do receive occurring in just a few major rain events as the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska has documented that rainfall events across the Great Plains are occurring less frequently but with more intensity when they do occur.
If this trend continues, soil resilience could become an even more important factor in yield stability under climate extremes. Soil health practices that increase carbon in the soil improve soil resilience by increasing soil microbial activity which can lead to enhanced soil structural stability. The structural stability comes from better soil aggregation and aggregate stability which improves the soil’s ability to infiltrate and store moisture due to better porosity in the soil.
While annual crops still have a chance for respectable production with timely rain, livestock producers will be facing challenges again in 2022. It is already known that we are more likely than not to see a delay in grazing readiness this spring and at least a 25 percent reduction in forage production from perennial grasses due to the dry conditions that occurred last fall. Throw in lingering effects from the dry conditions that actually started in late summer of 2020 and some possible overuse or overgrazing trying to get livestock through last summer and there could be significant reductions in forage production for 2022.
As such, livestock producers may want to be thinking about annual forages or cover crops that could be used for supplement hay or grazing.
One of the first annual forage options that comes to mind is generally small grains such as barley, oats or triticale, which can be planted from late April to early June. Forage barley is generally considered to be more drought tolerant than oats and more cost effective than triticale. Plus, forage barley generally doesn’t show higher nitrate levels as quickly with stress than forage oats although any of these crops can certainly accumulate nitrates under extended stress conditions.
Another popular option for annual forages is the warm-season grasses such as millet and sorghum-sudan, which can be planted from late May into June. Siberian millet is generally considered the most drought tolerant of the warm-season grasses followed by German millet. The sorghum-sudan hybrids are not as drought tolerant as the millets. Plus, they can be more difficult to cure for hay than the millets.
While any of the above could be grazed as well as being put up for hay, a cover crop mixture may be the best option if you are looking for something strictly to graze. Planting a mixture of cool- and warm-season grasses, broadleaf crops and legume species will create diversity, help minimize risk due to weather conditions and extend the grazing period due to different growth stages.
The diversity created by the cover crop mix can help minimize risk due to weather as the different species included in the mix have different rooting structures and different times of peak moisture and nutrient uptake as compared to single species which are all competing for the same resources at the same time. Because of this, multi-species often out-produce single species. Even if they don’t out yield single species, they still offer increased soil health benefits compared to single species.
A number of crops could be included in cover crop mixes for grazing. The base for these mixes could be one of the forage barley or oat varieties along with one of the millets.
It is often desirable to include a legume in cover crop mixes. Field peas would be an option for earlier seeding. Field pea may not be the best in terms of drought tolerance but they tend to be one of the more cost effective legumes. For later plantings that include warm-season grass, cowpeas or possibly mung beans may be better options. Both are warm-season legumes that are rated as having better drought tolerance than field peas with good to excellent biomass production potential and forage quality.
Most cover crop mixes also include one or more of the Brassica species. Brassica species aren’t necessarily considered drought tolerant but are very desirable in a cover crop mix due to their remarkable forage quality, even after a killing frost. Plus, if we would start to get some moisture later in the season, they may be able to come on to provide later season grazing.
Brassicas noted to have some drought tolerance while still producing high quality forage include collards and forage rapeseed. Others that are maybe not quite as drought tolerant but still providing high quality forage include forage radish and turnips.
If haying may be a consideration, try to keep inclusion rate for the Brassicas on the lower side as the Brassicas tend to be high in moisture and can be difficult to cure for baled forage.
The last group of plants generally included in a cover crop mix would be the broadleaves. One option for a broadleaf would be to include a small amount of sunflower in the mix as sunflower is a deep-rooted crop that tends to be fairly drought tolerant and produces good quality forage that is utilized by cattle. Another option would be one of the spineless safflower varieties designed for grazing. Like sunflowers, they are deep rooted and fairly drought tolerant.
If you would like some help or suggestions on annual forages or cover crops for supplemental haying or grazing in 2022, give us a call at 701-774-2319. Another good source of information is your local NDSU Extension Service office. The NDSU Extension Service also has a good publication available on the subject at Annual Cover Crop Options for Grazing and Haying in the Northern Plains | NDSU Agriculture and Extension .