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2012: Drought Recovery or Drought Persistence?

By James Locke
Soils and Crops Consultant

Posted Jan. 1, 2012

As I write this month's article in early December 2011, most producers are feeling more optimistic because we have had some rain and it has cooled off. The 100-plus degree days of the past summer are a bad memory. Small grains, although late, are mostly looking good. Ryegrass has taken advantage of open spaces in pastures and is providing hope for high quality early spring grazing. While I do not want to put a damper on your optimism, now is not the time to think you can just go back to routine management. Now is the time to plan for how we will survive if the drought continues or how we will speed up pasture recovery if rainfall returns to "normal" levels.

On the optimistic side, what should be in our drought recovery plan? First, be prepared for an aggressive weed management program. Overgrazed pastures will have open spaces that are likely to be filled with weeds. Identify those weeds and be prepared to control them early so desirable forages have the opportunity to fill those gaps.

Second, maintain proper soil fertility. Good soil fertility, particularly appropriate phosphorus, potassium and pH will favor rapid recovery of perennial forages. Many weeds are superior colonizers of open spaces and do better in low fertility or low pH soils. Aggressive nitrogen fertility is not recommended until perennial forages have recovered enough to utilize it. Applying high amounts of nitrogen too soon will only encourage weeds to be more competitive and further delay pasture recovery. While weed management and soil fertility are always important, they are even more critical during drought recovery.

Third, be conservative about harvest management and do not completely restock to pre-drought levels. Perennial forages have been through a lot of stress and need to rebuild root systems and carbohydrate reserves. If we either repeatedly graze or hay off all the new growth, perennial forages will not have enough energy for recovery.

Fourth, use annual forages to ease pressure on recovering perennial pastures.

On a more pessimistic note, what should be in our drought persistence plan? First, be aggressive on weed management early in the season. Early in the season, weeds have not had time to compete for limited moisture supplies or reduce desirable forage production. Early season weeds are also easier to control because they have not developed a thick, waxy cuticle on their leaves yet.

Second, maintain phosphorus and potassium levels. If these nutrients are adequate, plants are more efficient with water use and will produce more with less water. Although soil pH or acidity is still critical, lime requires moisture to work. Unless irrigation is available, you can wait until the drought breaks to tackle pH issues.

Third, monitor and be prepared to treat foliage-feeding insects like grasshoppers and armyworms. Those same bare soil areas that are prone to weeds are also excellent egg laying habitat for grasshoppers. This can set the stage for higher than normal populations. The economic threshold for foliage-feeding insects is also lower due to the higher value of the forage they are consuming.

Fourth, maintain a conservative stocking rate and, if necessary, be prepared to destock further.

Fifth, do not open all the gates and let the cattle get whatever they can. Be prepared to utilize a sacrifice pasture for feeding and allow other pastures to recover. The other pastures can be lightly grazed, but keep as much pressure off as possible to prevent long-term damage.

Virtually all of Texas and Oklahoma is still in exceptional or extreme drought categories as of early 2012, and the forecast is for those conditions to persist or intensify. While I am not willing to sell out based on a long-term drought forecast, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility. Having a plan for either scenario is simply the wise course. The old saying is true - failure to plan is planning to fail.

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