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Forage Observations: Looking Back and Thinking Ahead

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Posted Apr. 30, 1999

1998...what a year to remember...or should I say forget!!! We had 32.97 inches of rainfall in Ardmore. Compared to an average of 38.47 inches over the last 97 years, we weren't that far off. What happened? If you look at the following chart you will notice that our 1998 rainfall was not very effective.

Even though we received nearly 33 inches, it didn't come during April and May when it is most needed and typically the greatest. We did receive a reasonable amount of moisture in June, but the ground was so dry and the plants so stressed that by the time the plants began to take up water and grow, the soil was dry again and stayed that way until October. By this time it was too late to produce significant growth in our native grass pastures. Fortunately, it was unseasonably warm through December, which allowed some of us to grow additional bermudagrass later than normal and ryegrass sooner than normal.

What about 1999? So far, we have received adequate moisture to produce tremendous ryegrass and winter annual production in some of our pastures, especially if they were fertilized this spring. If you have bermudagrass pastures, I would recommend you fertilize them according to your desired stocking rate, as always. However, if you are a native grass producer, then be prepared to adjust (decrease) your stocking rate, if you haven't done so already, to reduce grazing pressure and allow some recovery time. The additional weed population you are experiencing this year is a direct result of last year's drought combined with heavy grazing pressure. Herbicides would take care of many of your weeds, but I would strongly question the economic justification of an $8.00 per acre application. If you are lucky and have both native grass and introduced pastures, then I would recommend you consider increasing your fertilizer rates on bermudagrass and plains bluestem and plan on grazing them more, hence, reducing the grazing pressure on your native grass by allowing them a longer recovery period or a reduced stocking rate.

Something else that might be beneficial to your operation would be the implementation of additional fencing which would give you more opportunity for extended rest periods. Consider the illustration below. In a continuous grazing system, the animal is in control of what she eats and how often she eats it; whereas, in a "controlled" grazing unit, the operator has a much greater ability to manage plants through the "control" of his livestock.

Twelve paddocks might be too extreme for your operation but there are a multitude of options for your individual operation. Many times, all that is required for a successful grazing system is grouping your livestock and closing a few gates. If not, then you might consider working off a central water point to develop paddocks for better control of your land and livestock as shown below.

Water quality might also be an issue with your operation. I know many of you took advantage of low pond water levels during the drought and did some cleaning out and dam repairs. Now might be a good time for you to consider limiting livestock access to your ponds to increase water quality and prevent future siltation. A buffer zone of 20 feet should be sufficient depending on the severity of runoff and erosion around the pond. The following diagrams illustrate fencing arrangements that limit livestock access to waterways and ponds.

Hopefully, we won't have to live through another year like 1998 in the near future but it always pays to plan ahead. And because droughts are a normal occurrence in our business, we should always have a plan to offset their severity. Following are a few tips for you to remember just in case you find yourself entering into another potential drought.

  • Adjust your stocking rate to the carrying capacity of dry years and take advantage of favorable years with alternative enterprises retained ownership, stockers, etc.
  • Know your seasonal forage flow and be prepared to adjust your stock flow accordingly.
  • Plan for water availability. Ensure access to large water reservoirs or well water if possible. Graze areas with limited water reserves first.
  • Add additional fencing. Permanent or temporary crossfences increase the number of paddocks, thus increasing your ability to effectively control the graze and rest periods.
  • Lengthen rest periods during slow or no growth. Plants can withstand severe grazing if followed by proper rest periods, during which time the plants replenish tissues above and below ground.
  • Know your critical dates for rainfall and for forage growth. These dates coincide with seasonal temperatures and day length that directly affect the forage flow of the forage types.
  • Have animals selected, in advance, to sell. Establish "levels" of culling or dispersal: i.e. 1st level open cows, 2nd level low or poor producers, 3rd level growing stock and large calves, 4th level old cows and non-conformers, etc.
  • Consider early weaning to avoid poor conceptions the following year. During drought conditions, forages decline rapidly in quantity and quality. By weaning calves before the end of the breeding season, you effectively decrease the cows' nutrient requirements by 50%, which could mean the difference between rebreeding or not.
  • Plan, monitor, and replan. Establish a forage/grazing plan or calendar that outlines expected seasonal forage production.
  • Monitor utilization, production, and rainfall. Compare expected production with historical records, relative to rainfall, to current figures. Make adjustments as needed.
  • Do not drought feed unless you have a very good reason!!! This recommendation often falls on deaf ears. In that case, remember it is usually more cost efficient to move cattle to a location with abundant forage than it is to have the forage shipped into a drought-stricken area.