By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Recent rains have helped establish ground moisture for native grasses, but projections still are for continued reductions in available forage, and a correspondingly slow recovery of the region’s cattle stock.
“Native grasses and improved grasses are both going to benefit greatly from the rain we’ve received,” said Rick Nelson, agriculture educator for the Garfield County OSU Extension Office. “But, we’re still going to be short on sub-soil moisture, especially how close we grazed grass last summer, fall and winter.”
Nelson said grazing fields will look “better than they have since this time last year,” when producers begin moving cattle from rye and wheat onto native and Bermuda grasses in May.
But, he said, even if rainfalls return now to normal levels, it’s going to take time to repair the damage and restore production capacity in grazing fields.
“If you listen to our forage experts, we’ll see around a 30 to 50 percent reduction in forage production this year, because of the damage done in the drought last year,” Nelson said. “And, that’s if rainfall returns to normal.”
Steve McKinley, acting executive vice president of Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, said producers remember last year, when the region received good spring rains, only to settle into the hottest, driest summer on record.
“Last year, we had a really good start,” McKinley said. “We got some good early rains, but then it turned off.”
McKinley said the rains of the last two weeks came just in time, as many producers were feeding the last of their hay.
He said recent rain will permit growers in most of the state to get a good start on growing hay, but ponds still have not recharged and many producers are short on water for their cattle. He said there is hope rains in the week’s forecast will begin to cause runoff and recharge stock ponds.
“We’ve got some good moisture in the ground, soil moisture is starting to recharge and maybe we’ll get some runoff from this next rain,” McKinley said.
Even if spring rains continue, producers will be cautious about when and how quickly they rebuild herds, McKinley said.
“With this rain, I think it will slow down the removal of cattle. These rains will allow us to hang on to what we have,” McKinley said. “But, the restocking will come when there’s a little more surety about what we can grow and support.”
Trever Mason, general manager at Northwest Stockyards in Enid, said producers still are facing a lot of uncertainty in the long-term outlook.
“The long-term outlook is still dry,” Mason said. “That creates a lot of uncertainty in our business. You want to go out and buy cattle and increase your herd, but when you look at the June and July forecasts, if you believe what you read, you could easily end up back in a very unfortunate predicament with little grass and no water again.”
Ryan Barns, a meteorologist for National Weather Service in Norman, said climate prediction forecasts call for equal chances of above average or below average precipitation through the spring and summer.
Recent rains have improved ground moisture, but almost 53 percent of the state, including north-central Oklahoma, remains in extreme to exceptional drought.
And, drought conditions are considerably worse than this time last year, when less than five percent of the state fell in that range.
Mason said the memories of last summer overshadow the positives of recent rainfall.
“It’s very volatile and uncertain at the current time,” Mason said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty with the drought projections, and with that being said, it’s extremely concerning for guys who want to graze cattle.”
Mason said concerns over summer heat and drought are keeping most producers from restocking. And, he said, even when conditions improve and producers begin to restock, it’s going to take a considerable amount of time to reach pre-drought herd levels.
“The problem with volume right now is, you’re looking at a three to five year minimum timeframe to bring back a positive volume base and see any substantial herd growth,” Mason said. “Though the rain is good right now, and it’s promising for a good grazing spring for the guys who do have cattle, it’s going to take a long time to come back from the devastation we’ve seen over the last two to three years.”