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Drought-stressed pastures need time and management

Clifford Mitchell Published on 01 September 2011
Drought affected region

Very few years will be classified as perfect ones for livestock producers.

Debaters by nature, most operators can find something to talk about for any given year. Certain years, though, will always stick out in some producers’ minds.

For most outfits, the tough decisions of whether to cull, early wean or market the calf crop sooner than normal have already been answered in certain areas of the country that have been plagued by drought and extreme heat.

To these producers the question remains what will be some of the long-term effects of these extremely tough conditions.

“It’s going to be next April before we can get enough growth to accumulate any forage,” says Hugh Aljoe, pasture and range consultant, Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

“With adequate fall moisture and favorable temperatures, we might be able to produce enough grass for one month.”

“In our area, hot weather and fescue don’t really mix,” says Eldon Cole, extension beef specialist at the University of Missouri.

“The combination can lead to heat sensitivity and more open cows. Certain forage types will also be replaced by weeds.”

Swift action

A more immediate response to the current conditions could be needed for some operations. Taking care of forage crops and taking care of the remaining cow herd until next spring will require adequate moisture coupled with strict management.

“In our area, hay quality and quantity is an issue,” Cole said. “Water supply and quality is of concern for producers right now.

There are some fairly shallow ponds in some areas. We could see an influx of undesirable forages due to overgrazing. Legumes could come back fairly strong in our area with a little rain.

Johnsongrass is drought-resistant forage, but producers need to be careful because of nitrate and prussic acid levels associated with it.”

“We’re encouraging producers to look at every alternative to get to spring,” Aljoe said

. “If we get some good moisture, some of the really good introduced pastures can produce a 30-day to 40-day high-quality forage supply with a little nitrogen. Overseeding ryegrass or interseeding wheat or oats are other options some producers will choose to take.

“Ryegrass won’t help much with fall grazing; don’t plant until after October 1,” Aljoe added. “Overseed some mediocre Bermuda fields with ryegrass.

The really good hay meadows are going to need all the spring moisture they can get. Oats offer quicker grazing but are prone to freeze out.

If producers can lock in hay or feed at a reasonable price, go ahead and do it. There is risk involved with forage options.”

Cattle in drought

Tackling weeds, helping grasses

Managing forages is one of those talents most have to work on to be good at. Getting the title “grass farmer” is high praise in the beef industry.

Adequate forage management in tough years is more important than when conditions are perfect. Input costs may have also been a factor when it came to pasture management conditions.

“In a lot of areas the drought has been prolonged,” Aljoe says. “The grasses are weak and will get started slow. Most areas will experience a weed issue.

“Weed spray your pastures in the spring; this is a pretty inexpensive tool to help produce forage. Get some soil samples, especially if you haven’t done that in a while. The advantage to waking up your forages, though, is spring will come earlier.”

“In our area, we usually have some pretty good moisture around Labor Day,” said Cole. “If we get moisture, producers need to start planning to fertilize those cool-season grasses.

We can grow a ton or more to the acre in well-managed fields for fall grazing with adequate moisture. Most producers definitely have improved their forage management skills through better grazing management.

Producers need to soil test to more accurately figure a soil fertility program and keep a handle on fertilizer costs.”

Forage type or species will often help producers care for those crops and start the healing process. Certain pastures may recover quickly with adequate moisture; other forage crops may need a little extra TLC.

“Introduced pastures can rebound pretty quickly in our area,” Aljoe said. “Native grasses that have been grazed extremely hard may be set back three to five years in terms of normal production.

Introduced grasses that haven’t been taken care of from a fertility standpoint will come out slower and take longer to cover the pasture.

“It basically depends on how much rest and recovery, especially for the native grasses, pastures get next spring. Producers can easily plan on a 20 to 30 percent reduction in forage supplies under good management for the next year.”

“Some of the cool-season grasses in our area are really overgrazed with high cattle populations,” Cole says. “These fields will have sustained long-term effects from the overgrazing.”

Blessings in disguise

Although most like to talk “doom and gloom” when it comes to dry, hot conditions, good things sometimes come with the territory – even if it is a mistake or the result of the poor growing conditions.

“Fly populations have been lower in our area this year due to the dry summer,” Cole says. “A lot of people planted a corn crop which unfortunately stunted out and won’t produce much grain. These producers will have a good supply of silage to feed this fall.”

Beef producers are a die-hard group and generally “throwing in the towel” is not an option. Unfortunately, in some areas, planning to help forage crops recuperate for grazing next spring is the best option.

Relying on forage management skills to put those pastures back in shape, and some help from Mother Nature, could lead to healthier pastures.

“Even in 1980 (this was another tough year), our pastures bounced back in no time,” Cole recalled.

“Even though we have seen unseasonably high temps and the lack of moisture, I don’t know if we have reached the extremes of 1980s yet. Our forages could respond to good management in the fall.

“Better managed pastures respond in almost no time at all to most any setback.”

“Bermudagrass doesn’t fare too well in 100-degree weather with no rain,” Aljoe says. “It’s not nearly as productive. Our native pastures really need to rest right now until after frost.

We need to be planning for next spring. Producers need to rely on conservative stocking rates and really take care of their soil. Most fields will recover, but it takes time and management.”  end_mark

PHOTOS

TOP:  Once cool and wet weather returns to drought-affected regions, producers should start fertilizing cool-season grasses to make recovery happen faster. Photo courtesy of Parker Angus Ranch.
BOTTOM: With more rest and recovery in the spring – and a return of moisture – cattle should have pastures recover with good management. Photo courtesy of staff

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