Fires in Oklahoma and Texas and record-low rainfall have caused many people who earn a living on the land to make decisions they have not faced in many years. 2005 was very unusual in that much of the southern Great Plains suffered through drought in both spring and fall. The departure from normal rainfall by more than 20 inches in some parts of the Plains has resulted in extremely overgrazed conditions. A large part of this region is dedicated to livestock grazing and is composed of warm-season native grasses and/or tame pasture grasses such as bermudagrass or Old World bluestems.
Every drought ends with a rain, and our best chance for appreciable rainfall will come again this spring. While we will undoubtedly be thankful for the rain when it does come, there also is a need to be prepared for some potentially problematic conditions that could occur. With many bermudagrass pastures being extremely overgrazed and in low vigor, there is a good chance for a bumper crop of annual grasses this spring. No doubt, we will all welcome the grass, especially on some of the more marginal soils, but the blessing of ryegrass or other annuals could become a big problem on some of the better soils. I remember this same scenario played out in spring 1998 as volunteer ryegrass literally smothered weakened bermudagrass to the point that total stands were lost. Be prepared to harvest annual grasses early this year, either with cattle or maybe even an early hay cutting to prepare for next winter. If rangeland is a significant part of your operation, strive to provide some spring grazing deferment on your best pastures; this may mean you have to temporarily abuse a pasture of bermudagrass or other introduced grass. Generally, introduced grasses recover quicker than native grasses when overgrazed. In some cases, there will be no option other than to feed hay into the spring and/or reduce herd numbers. Many of you have already been preparing for this, but, if you have not, consider consulting a livestock specialist for assistance in culling your herd. The obvious first cuts will be cows without a calf or physically challenged cattle (i.e., bad udders, teeth, etc.). As always, production records can help immensely in this process. It would also be wise to think about where and when to market your animals. If you have enough volume, it sometimes pays to market cattle outside a drought-stricken area. Consult with an agricultural economist as soon as possible to reduce losses in your bottom line.
At the least, spring 2006 will likely bring many producers a weed situation that they have not dealt with before. Annual weeds will be at a competitive advantage over weakened warm-season perennial grasses for moisture and sunlight. With all of this in mind, I encourage you to:
- Develop a weed management plan for this spring.
- Develop a livestock culling protocol, and do not wait too late into the season to "pull the trigger."
- Be prepared to take an early hay cutting on winter annuals by no later than the end of April.
- Discuss marketing options with an agricultural economist as soon as possible.
Integrating cool-season forages into a warm-season forage base can lengthen your potential growing season; however, too much of a good thing can hurt sometimes. Overseed no more cool-season forages than you can harvest with cattle or timely hay cuttings. Consider no more than to ½ acre overseeded cool-season grass per animal unit.