Times of drought highlight the need for grassland management
The curious cows at the Yellow Quill Prairie Preserve. (Photo by Diana Robson)
It's usually around this time of year that Manitoba's livestock producers begin to look up toward the sky and down toward the grass, hoping to get enough clear weather to get the hay cut and baled while still getting enough precipitation to keep their pastures growing. This year is no different. But while some areas of Manitoba are receiving rain, most everyone can agree that many parts of Manitoba could use a little more.
Dry summers in Manitoba remind us of the importance of good pasture management, not only to maintain and enhance the biodiversity values of Manitoba's grassland habitats, but also to provide resistance and a buffer against climate variations (in this case, drought). Stocking rates (the number of animals on a given amount of land) are set based on average production values. Below-average moisture conditions place a little more pressure on pastures, as it's not possible for producers to change their herd sizes based on annual moisture conditions.
Variations in growing conditions and grass use are not a bad thing for biodiversity. The prairies have evolved with that reality, and the rich biodiversity of Manitoba depends on it. Some species require very different conditions than others throughout their life cycle. For instance, birds may need higher grasses for nesting and shorter grasses when foraging for food.
The ability of grasslands to support biodiversity and livestock production during extremes is a result of management history. Taller grass has deeper roots, which are able to access moisture deeper in the soil during dry periods. Also, the energy reserves that plants have access to are greater when they haven't been over used. Minimal bare ground and an appropriate duff layer (the layer of dead grass that cover the soil) also insulate the soil and reduce evaporation. This keeps higher soil moisture levels for longer periods of time. Good soil structure that isn't compacted also allows rainfall to penetrate down instead of running off. In this way, good grass management maintains and enhances biodiversity and supports profitable livestock production.
Despite all of this, there are still times when the skies don't cooperate and drought conditions turn into emergencies. As a community member, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in Manitoba has been asked to support our neighbours by making pasture or hay available for emergency use. Should a state of emergency be declared anywhere in Manitoba, NCC works with the relevant local or provincial authority in order to have our lands made available to our neighbours in need.
For a list of NCC Manitoba properties available to producers, please click here. Interested producers should call 1-866-683-6934 and indicate which area of Manitoba they are inquiring about. They will be directed to the appropriate local NCC Natural Area coordinator.