Dry weather occurs at some point almost every summer. But over the past few years, we seem to be in a dry cycle, with many parts of the West seeing much lower than normal rainfall. Over the past 365 days, the Mesonet system shows Oklahoma has seen slight reductions in precipitation in central Oklahoma to large reductions in precipitation in western Oklahoma and the Panhandle.
Failure to take preventive measures and plan ahead at the first signs of drought leads to damage from overgrazing pastures, overfeeding and herd liquidation. Although drought cannot be avoided entirely, a good forage management plan will reduce the impact on forages and speed pasture recovery when growing conditions return. Planning forage needs in advance helps maintain a herd during drought crisis.
Drought management for pastures includes three main categories:
1). Develop a balanced seasonal forage system to avoid the impacts of drought.
A balanced forage program and a good grazing plan reduce the impact of drought and extend the grazing season. The lengthening of the grazing season has a strong positive impact on the profitability of livestock farms. Many farms already have an adequate forage base to produce enough forage for livestock, but management often focuses on producing hay for a long hay-feeding season instead of producing more grazing days at less cost. The most important part of a balanced forage system is the planning and strategy used with existing forages. Longer grazing seasons can usually be achieved by simply changing forage management. Planning for a longer grazing season requires a seasonal approach to forage production and management. The spring, summer, and fall seasons are handled as 100 days each, leaving a winter season of 65 days. Forage management plans should be developed at least one season in advance to ensure speed of implementation and to allow options in the event of unexpected growing conditions such as drought. Plans for spring pastures are made in fall and winter; plans for the summer are made in winter and spring; etc A variety of forages should be used to fill a grazing program, using those that match your environment and fill the desired niche are important considerations.
2) Manage forage for efficient use during drought.
It always rains after a drought. It is important to manage pastures well during a drought to ensure good recovery when the drought ends. Management decisions must be made quickly during the early stages of drought to maintain enough forage to feed the herd. Culling poorly performing animals is one option to reduce the amount of forage needed, but improving pasture management can also be effective. Producers who plan forage and grazing practices ahead of time put themselves in a position to take advantage of better growing conditions when those conditions return. When pastures become short and producers provide hay, management strategies should focus on recovering pastures after drought. The main points to consider for dry weather forage management are:
- Avoid continued overgrazing before pastures become too short. Overgrazing weakens plants and leads to shortened root systems, causing them to respond more slowly to rain and fertilizers. Overgrazing leads to higher soil temperatures because it removes residues that shade the soil surface. During the 2011 drought in Oklahoma, soil temperatures in bare and overgrazed pastures reached up to 150 degrees.
- Rotational grazing is a good drought management tool. Rotational grazing helps maintain forage growth longer in a drought period than continuous grazing. Rotating pasture during drought conditions can help protect standing forage for later grazing and will improve recovery due to more resting time for each paddock.
- Feeding hay and limiting grazing during dry weather can stretch available forage on drought-stressed pastures. If all pastures are already short grazed and no regrowth is produced, cattle can be confined to a single “sacrifice pasture” and fed hay until better growing conditions arrive. This practice limits overgrazing damage to one pasture and helps protect forage in other pastures that will be needed for later grazing.
3) Manage pastures for drought recovery.
Some pasture forages will be killed or severely thinned by drought. Evaluate pastures and determine which fields will recover, which fields need overseeding and which fields need complete renovation. A good assessment of actual forage damage and weed pressure is essential.
Soil testing of all pastures is required. Not all pastures will show the same level of drought damage, so improvement strategies need not be the same across the farm. Some pastures may fully recover with time and management while others may require complete renovation.
The following options should be considered to improve forage recovery after drought:
- Managing to allow surviving forage to grow back without reseeding
- Try thickening scanty pastures with more of the same species
- Add legumes, winter annuals or forage crucifers to thin fields
- Rehabilitate severely damaged pastures by converting them to other forages
When it rains and the pastures begin to green again, delay grazing to allow the aerial part and the roots to grow back. During and after recovery, graze the best pastures last. This practice will help ensure that the best pastures continue to be the best pastures. Grazing too early before adequate recovery will result in stand thinning, weed encroachment and deteriorating pasture condition.
Scout pastures closely for weeds. Some weeds such as woolly croton are avoided by livestock and populations can grow unnoticed. Winter annual weeds will germinate in the fall along with volunteer clover or cool season grasses. Weeds can quickly invade a weakened pasture in the event of rain, preventing forage regrowth and greatly reducing the intentional reseeding of desirable forages. Use concentrated grazing pressure, mowing or herbicide, as appropriate, to control specific weed species.
Source: Oklahoma State University, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is fully owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all of its affiliates are not responsible for any content contained in this information asset.