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Managing pastures in dry times

By submitted, 07/14/18 7:15 AM

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 40-50% 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.

Management decisions should be made quickly during drought to maintain enough forage to feed the herd. Culling poor performing animals is one choice to reduce the amount of forage needed, but improving pasture management can also be effective. Producers who plan 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 that pasture, but it helps protect forage in other pastures that will needed for later grazing.