Producers who keep their heads in the game can help their pastures compete with drought and its aftereffects, says John Jennings. This University of Arkansas Extension forage specialist, whose entire state is in drought, offers winning strategies for dealing with and recovering from it.
“If you have any grass left at all, use rotational or controlled-access grazing as much as possible to extend grazing,” he says. “Feed it like it’s standing hay; use existing gates and fences or temporary electric fence to ration the grass out.”
Leave top growth wherever possible to help pastures recover faster. That helps keep soil temperatures down, he learned from an Oklahoma colleague in much the same drought situation last year.
“Where they had bare, overgrazed pasture, their soil temperatures reached as much as 150°F. So if we can keep some residue on there to shade that surface, it keeps temperatures down somewhat and forages are in a little better shape to recover.”
If renting land that hasn’t been grazed in a while, or moving cattle to another farm, scout for toxic weeds such as perilla mint and wilted johnsongrass, Jennings stresses. “We’ve had several cases of cattle deaths from prussic-acid poisoning from johnsongrass this summer already.”
To bolster forage supplies, farmers with freshly harvested corn ground and irrigation could plant summer annuals such as sorghum-sudangrass or pearl millet. But for any crop planted after the first week of August, “it’s getting iffy on how long the nighttime temperatures will stay warm enough for that summer crop to grow.”
Invest in insecticide as needed, urges Jennings, who notes that armyworms and grasshoppers are devouring his area’s green forage. “If they can protect what they have and keep it growing, they’ll probably make more forage than what they could buy for hay.” And it will be better quality than what will be available, he says.
Producers buying hay but have little storage should consider making their own, Jennings adds. Stack bales on pallets or a crushed-rock base and cover with good-quality hay tarps – not inexpensive blue tarps.
Feed beef cattle only what they need to avoid waste. Research has shown that limit-feeding good-quality hay about five to six hours per day will cut down on waste and maintain body condition. But try that with poor-quality hay and the cattle won’t get enough nutrients, he cautions.
Before feeding crop residues, have nitrate levels tested to avoid toxicity problems. “They also need to check the history of the chemicals used on those crops, because some of them prohibit the use of treated material for animal feeding.”
Wean and sell calves early – don’t wait for fall – to reduce the nutritional demand on cows as well as the competition for forages. As conditions recover, one option may be to keep cow numbers low and retain ownership on calves at weaning. If drought reoccurs, the calves can be sold.
“It may be a way they could increase their returns with fewer head by being able to optimize the use of their forage at excess times of the year.”
When rains return, be ready with a drought recovery plan, he says.
“We’re telling producers they really need to evaluate their pastures and figure out which ones they think will fully recover, which ones are going to have to be overseeded and which ones need complete renovation.”
Scout pastures for problem weeds that cattle haven’t grazed and concentrate grazing pressure or a herbicide, or a mix of the two, so weeds aren’t the only plants to recover.
Then fertilize. If you have to prioritize, pick the best pastures to apply nitrogen to speed up grass growth and phosphorus to stimulate root development, he says.
Once pastures green up, hold off grazing so plants can get established – or re-established.
If stop-gap forage is needed, plant winter annuals like wheat, rye, oats, triticale and ryegrass as early as conditions allow. Or plant brassicas, such as turnips. “We had good luck with those last year. We planted them in late August and by the first of November we had some really nice, grazable forage,” Jennings says.