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Managing pastures during dry weather

May 30, 2012

Seems strange writing about drought in May and June. Field conditions normally don’t look this dry until August most years and I don’t remember seeing a May as dry as this year. The likelihood of a record-setting dry spring across most of the state is very unsettling for forage and livestock growers. Hay barns are still empty and the spring hay crop yield is running about 60% of normal at this point. The only small bright spot is that overall average hay quality this spring will likely be better due to the early seasonal harvest. Pasture growth has stalled due to the dry conditions and the small amount of hay may be needed to feed livestock if rain doesn’t arrive soon. Many producers are facing critical forage shortage and are asking about options.


I made a comment after a presentation a few years ago that nothing that I had just talked about works if it doesn’t rain. After rethinking that comment, I know that I was wrong. All the good recommended grazing management practices do work even in dry weather. If you don’t believe it, just look at which producers are out of grass first and which ones have grazing the longest. Those that farm for good forage first always graze the longest. Management decisions should be made quickly during drought to maintain enough forage to feed the herd. Producers who plan their forage management strategy ahead get themselves into a position to take advantage of better growing conditions when those conditions eventually arrive. Here are a few points to consider for managing forages during dry weather and afterward when pastures begin to recover.  


Drought management forage practices:

  • Protect any remaining standing forage by shutting pasture gates or by using temporary electric fencing. Manage it like standing hay and feed it a few acres at a time to make it last as long as possible. A solar fence energizer and single strand of temporary electric wire can be installed in a matter of minutes to subdivide pastures as needed.
  • Rotational grazing is a good drought management tool. Rotational grazing helps maintain forage growth longer into a drought period than continuous grazing. Overgrazing weakens plants and leads to shortened root systems causing them to respond more slowly to rain and fertilizer than do healthier plants. Rotating pastures during drought conditions can help protect the pastures that will be needed for summer production.
  • Although all forages produce lower yield when drought occurs, some species including bermudagrass and KY-31 tall fescue can tolerate heavy grazing pressure and still persist while others are eliminated from the stand. Manage grazing pressure carefully during prolonged dry weather to prevent loss of high quality forage species such as novel endophyte fescue, clover, and orchardgrass.
  • Feeding hay and limit grazing during dry weather can stretch available forage on drought-stressed pastures. If all pastures are already grazed short and no regrowth is being produced then cattle can be shut in a single pasture and fed hay until better growing conditions arrive. This practice may be detrimental to one pasture, but it helps protect forage in other pastures that will needed for later grazing.
  • Pay attention to soil fertility. Low fertility soils don’t support good pasture growth and often fail first during a drought. Feeding hay is low fertility areas is a low cost method for improving soil fertility in those poor fields.
  • Plan for weed control. Many weeds are not readily grazed by livestock, especially wooly croton and pigweed, and can endure drought un-noticed as small plants and then grow rapidly at the first rain. The resulting shade drastically reduces any growth recovery of the pasture grass. Early control before the weeds cause problems will yield forage growth benefits later.
  • Plan to overseed annuals at the proper time. Winter annuals such as ryegrass, wheat, rye, and even turnips saved a lot of farms last fall and winter. These forages can be planted in the dust at the recommended time and nearly always make a grazing crop. Last summer in late August, forage turnips were planted in several demonstrations and produced much needed forage by the end of October. Winter annuals planted in fall were being grazed all winter.

All these practices worked last year in a season that set lots of unenviable records for heat and dry conditions. Anything that worked last year is worth repeating.


John Jennings, Professor-Animal Science

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