July is Critical in Forage Decision Making
There are several key decision times throughout the year, and relative to the forage season, July is one of the most critical. As of mid-July, most warm-season perennial grasses such as bermudagrass, old world bluestems and good condition native pasture have produced 60 to 70 percent of their annual production. Pastures should have a surplus of forage at this time, either as standing forage or hay. If reserves are not adequate to pasture cattle through the remainder of the growing season, then alternatives need to be evaluated. Eliminating cool-season annuals on perennial pastures (next year), fall fertilization of introduced pasture, purchasing hay, leasing additional land or destocking of livestock are alternatives to assess financially.
Last year was a good year for most of the Foundation's service area, probably the best year in several. This spring started off dry with some areas having good rainfall in May. Personally, I noted a significant amount of ryegrass and other cool-season annuals in bermudagrass pastures. In fact, in most cases as of early June, the cool-season annuals were still dominating the pastures, significantly limiting bermudagrass production. I also visited several locations where the cool-season annuals were eliminated using a herbicide in late winter and observed lush pastures 12-18 inches tall with 1,500-2,000 pounds per acre of available bermudagrass. If your bermudagrass (or other warm-season perennial pasture) is in short supply but you had excess ryegrass (or other cool-season annuals), you might make a mental note to plan to eliminate the cool-season forages on your best bermudagrass pastures next winter.
Another means to increase forage production is to fall fertilize bermudagrass. Studies have demonstrated that crude protein and digestibility of fall-fertilized bermudagrass can meet and exceed the nutrient requirements of lactating cows and growing calves well into the winter months, until availability becomes limited. The amount of production in the fall is determined by the timing and amount of fertilizer applied, as well as by rainfall and the first killing frost. To ensure the greatest probability of success, apply nitrogen (50 to 80 units of actual nitrogen) and other nutrients according to soil analysis to your best bermudagrass pastures in late August or early September. For optimal results, have the fertilizer out ahead of potential early fall rains. One can either stockpile the grass for grazing in late fall or after frost as standing hay.
One can also purchase hay to fill winter deficiencies. Locating hay this time of year is relatively easy and therefore more predictable than fall rainfall. If purchasing hay, purchase quality hay as economically as possible. Start looking now, have a forage analysis run on potential possibilities before purchase (the Foundation can perform forage analysis), and then purchase the hay that best fits your needs. It would be a good idea to have your own hay inventory analyzed now to determine its quality before purchasing additional hay. Locating quality hay now before the fall rush occurs allows you time for more selection opportunities.
In some cases, leasing additional pasture may be an alternative. If you are in a pasture-deficient situation due to drought, though, odds are so are your neighbors. However, by following the national weather patterns, one can usually locate some areas of the country that have surplus pasture. If it is within trucking distance and the economics indicate it to be feasible, leasing additional pasture might be a short-term option worthy of consideration.
The option usually least desired but the one that should always be considered is destocking. If you have been purchasing hay regularly or searching for emergency pasture over the last few years to fill production deficiencies, you are probably overstocked relative to the long-term weather pattern and current soil and pasture conditions. The bottom line will be determined by the economics inherent to your operation. Economies of scale certainly have merit, but there is always a point of diminishing returns. By downsizing, the fixed costs will increase on a per head or per acre basis, but the operational expenses may decrease at a much greater rate. Therefore, it is important to consider the economic ramifications of each option, both short term and long term. Regardless of your current and historic annual pasture situation, having a protocol for destocking during drought conditions should be an element of your management plan (see Feeding, Culling Are Main Drought Considerations for more information).
On a final note, now is also a good time to begin preparations for establishment of small grains and other winter pasture forages such as cool-season perennial grasses and legumes. July is the perfect month to line up your seed supply requirements and schedule delivery. Soil analysis should also be performed at this time as the first process in pasture establishment. If soil amendments like lime and phosphorus and potassium are required, apply during field preparations, ahead of fall planting and prior to those early fall rains we are anxiously anticipating.