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Drought Recovery Tips for Forages

July 20, 2012

Drought Recovery Tips for Forages

John Jennings, Shane Gadberry, Paul Beck, Dirk Philipp, and Kenny Simon

The current drought situation is the result of mostly lower than average rainfall over the past 12 months across most of the state along with record high temperatures. Spring rainfall was lower than normal and with early vegetation growth. The resulting high evapotranspiration rate pulled moisture from the soil as fast as rains came. Then conditions turned dry and cool which effectively stopped growth of both warm and cool season forages. With no buildup of subsoil moisture in spring, the heat and drought effects intensified quickly. Temperatures over 100 degrees limit growth of all forages.  Some areas have received scattered showers which are promoting pasture growth. Pasture recovery will require more than a few rain showers due to the entire dry soil profile and continued high temperatures. For much of the state, pastures are grazed short and producers are feeding hay. In those cases, management strategies must focus on pasture recovery after drought. Here are some points to share with producers regarding forage management during drought and for drought recovery.

During Drought

  • Use rotational or controlled access grazing to extend grazing on any remaining forage. In drought-stressed pastures, treat any remaining forage as if it were standing hay and allocate it in strips or paddocks large enough for no more than 2-3 days grazing. Temporary electric fence is a good investment and is a great tool for strip grazing pasture. Properly installed electric fence systems with modern low impedance energizers will not start pasture fires. Some areas have received rain and forages are recovering. In green, growing pastures, rotational grazing will improve recovery due to more rest time for each paddock and will protect standing forage in case drought returns to those areas.
  • Avoid continued overgrazing. Drought-stressed pastures will recover more quickly if not overgrazed. Topgrowth mirrors root growth so continued overgrazing causes weak, short roots which will further slow recovery. Overgrazing causes higher soil temperatures because it removes residue that shades the soil surface. Last year in Oklahoma, soil temperatures in bare, overgrazed pastures reached as much as 150 degrees.
  • Scout rented land, new pastures, or ungrazed areas for toxic weeds such as perilla mint and even wilted johnsongrass. Hungry cattle or cattle brought to a new field or farm will often eat plants they would normally avoid. Perilla mint is becoming more common in open fields and poison hemlock seemed to be everywhere this spring. Johnsongrass is responsible for several cattle deaths already this summer. Prussic acid poisoning potential is very high for short johnsongrass forage (less than 18” tall), wilted forage, or for a new flush of growth soon after a rainfall.
  • Irrigation is gaining interest since last year’s drought. Irrigation scheduling can be a steep learning curve. A device called an ET Gauge is a great help for knowing when to irrigate. Go to www.etgage.com for information on this device. It works somewhat like a rain gauge. On this website are instruction files from Colorado State University on use and function of the ET Gauge.
  • Where irrigation is available, plant a summer annual crop such as pearl millet or sorghum/sudan hybrid. Many crop farmers are asking about planting these forages after corn harvest in late July to produce a cash hay crop by fall. These forages have the potential to produce a hay crop by mid-September if planted in moist soil no later than the first week of August. Agreements between livestock and crop farmers should be considered for this option. Under strict dryland conditions, this may not be a consideration without good rainfall soon.
  • Consider the possibility of renting un-used pasture from neighboring landowners. Pasture rent can be much less expensive than buying hay and feed. Landowners renting pasture should work with renters to make a fair written agreement that protects both parties. The landowner certainly does not want overgrazed, degraded pastures and the renter should be a good steward to have the option of renting again if necessary.
  • Watch for insect pests such as armyworms and grasshoppers. Both have been problems this year. Armyworm infestation is highly likely on the first fields to green up after rainfall since the moths key in on green tender growth for egg laying. Insecticide is a cost but protecting good quality green forage is cheaper than buying hay.
  • Protect purchased hay from weathering during storage. Many people do not have adequate storage for large amounts of hay. Hay can be stacked outside, but make sure it is up off the ground and covered. It can be stacked on pallets, poles, large crushed rock, or even tires. Cover it with a good quality hay tarp. The cheap blue tarps are not UV protected and will fall apart when exposed to wind and direct sunshine.
  • Hay barns make good commodity sheds, so as hay is fed consider alternative uses of empty barn space for storage of other feeds.
  • Protect hay when feeding to reduce waste. Feed hay in rings to reduce hay waste. Unrolling hay increases hay waste unless it is done on a limit-feeding basis. Consider limiting the time cattle have access to hay to 5-6 hours per day. Most hay consumption occurs during the first few hours of feeding and longer access increases waste. Hay tests are very important when considering this option. Limiting time access should only be considered for high quality hay. Limiting intake on poor quality hay will reduce body condition of animals quickly.
  • Crop residues will be harvested and sold for hay. Test crop residues for nitrate level and for feed value. Last summer corn stalks had higher incidence of dangerous levels of nitrate than milo stalks, but both showed a considerable range below and above dangerous levels. Feed value of all crop residues should be assumed to be low. Lab tests will help when developing a feeding strategy using crop residues. Also check the history of crop chemicals used on the crop during the growing season. Many chemicals prohibit use of treated crops for livestock feed.
  • As drought progresses, producers are culling cows.  The number of cows sold in livestock markets is currently 3 times the number sold during the same time last year.  Many producers are also selling calves early to reduce the nutritional demand on cows and to reduce competition for forage from the older calves.   When the herd is reduced due to drought, producers should evaluate their grazing management program before adding animals back to the herd. When pasture recovery occurs producers should consider NOT re-populating the herd with cows.  An alternative to increasing cow numbers is to transition to using those additional forage resources for retained ownership of calves after weaning.  A retained ownership program adds flexibility to drought management. The current cost of feed has increased the value of gain from pasture. During periods of abundant forage, managing pastures to retain ownership of calves can increase returns from the calf crop. During periods of drought, instead of retaining ownership of calves, these calves can be sold earlier, allowing the base herd to have more forage resources available without having to liquidate cows.

During Recovery

  • Scout pastures closely for weeds. Some weeds such as wooly croton are avoided by livestock and populations can build unnoticed. Weeds can take over a weakened pasture quickly when rainfall occurs. Use concentrated grazing pressure or herbicide as appropriate to control specific weed species.
  • Fertilization will speed pasture recovery. When a good forecast of rain is predicted, apply some nitrogen fertilizer to the best pastures before the rain occurs. Phosphorus is important for root growth and can help plants with short root systems recover.
  • During and after recovery, graze the best pastures last. This practice will help ensure the best pastures continue to be the best pastures. Grazing too soon before adequate recovery will cause stand thinning, weed encroachment, and decline of pasture condition.
  • Drought-damaged pastures should be treated like newly seeded fields when recovery begins. When rainfall occurs and pastures begin to greenup, defer grazing to allow topgrowth and roots to regrow. Grazing stressed pastures immediately after greenup will further weaken plants and will lead to more pasture thinning especially over winter.
  • Plan to add annual forages in fall to provide fall and winter grazing. Seed supplies will not be unlimited this fall so find a seed source and reserve the amount needed early. Wheat prices are increasing and prices for rye, oats, and triticale will be high as well. The ryegrass seed crop is reportedly good in Oregon but prices will be higher due to demand. Forage brassicas such as forage turnips can provide quick forage if planted correctly.
  • Evaluate pastures and determine which ones will recover, which ones need overseeding, and which ones needed complete renovation. In many cases, particularly with fescue and clover, seed produced earlier will germinate in fall and can fill in thin fields if grazing pressure is limited. In some cases, this will be a good opportunity to overseed clover into thin fields to boost forage quality and reduce N fertilizer requirements. Soil tests will be needed to make sure soil pH and other fertility levels are adequate for clover. Cool-season forages such as fescue, orchardgrass, and clover are best planted in fall.  Warm-season grasses will need time to recover and likely will need well-planned weed control in late winter or early spring. Planting warm-season grasses should be done in mid-spring.

Obviously, there is no magical formula or potion for drought conditions. But making a plan to maintain pasture condition will take advantage of good growing conditions that will come eventually. Planning ahead for feed requirements will help with economic decisions to maintain a herd through the drought crisis.

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