Summer droughts in North America's northern Great Plains are expected to increase in frequency and duration as precipitation shifts toward spring and fall. Two rangeland experimental stations in North Dakota experienced drought in 2017 relative to 25-year averages. The southwest location had a 170-mm deficit from the 360-mm normal rainfall and was grazed by cattle (Bos taurus L.) and sheep (Ovis aries L.); the south-central location had 109 mm below the 403-mm normal rainfall and was grazed by cattle. We evaluated patch-burn grazing as a drought resilient land management strategy in the northern Great Plains by comparing average daily gains, fecal density, available forage biomass, and forage crude protein content. At the southwest location, livestock performed better during the drought season compared with animals on the same pastures in the previous year, which had near-normal rainfall but no fire. At the central location, cows on patch-burned pastures performed better than cows on continuously-grazed, unburned pastures in the same year under drought conditions; all cows were nursing calves and calf gains did not vary between treatments. In both locations, the burned patches had higher fecal density and lower available forage biomass than patches not yet burned throughout the grazing season, indicating grazer attraction to burned areas. Despite drought, burned patches maintained grazer attraction and animal performance was maintained or even improved, which contrasts with the expected relationship between animal performance and precipitation. This study indicated that prescribed patch-burning might mitigate drought by buffering forage resources (crude protein content and availability) and maintaining animal performance (average daily gains).
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Vol. 73 • No. 4