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Forage Management: Overcoming Last Fall’s Drought

By Dr. Bruno Pedreira

The Fall of 2023 was tough on our pastures. We didn’t have enough moisture for good forage growth, making it hard to stockpile fescue and replenish reserves for winter. Now, after the drought, our forage stands tend to be thinner, which means we might face more weed problems and lower yields in the upcoming season.

To tackle this, here are a few things to consider in 2024:

• It is strongly advisable to conduct a comprehensive soil analysis to determine the most suitable fertility program for the upcoming growing season. Guaranteeing that pastures or hay fields receive the essential nutrients to increase the probability of achieving optimal growth, stand persistence, and economic benefits.

• In March, it’s crucial to stay vigilant for cool-season weeds. When the forecast indicates three or more consecutive days with temperatures exceeding 60°F, cool-season weeds will be still actively growing, and herbicides can be applied. This window provides an opportune time to apply herbicides effectively. For detailed information on appropriate herbicides and rates check the UT Extension publication: Weed Control Manual for Tennessee (https://utbeef.tennessee.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/127/2022/02/PB1580_2022_DCFLS.pdf).

• If the soil moisture conditions permit, a short-term solution would be cool-season annuals such as spring oats planted in mid-to-late February. The recommended planting rate for spring oats is 100 to 150 lb/acre. Although the optimal window for planting falls between the last week of February and the first week of March, the broader timeframe extends from February 20 to April 1. This strategic planting will contribute to enhancing forage production in early spring, facilitating grazing opportunities in April and May. This practice helps mitigate the need to graze perennial cool-season pastures early in the season when grass reserves are yet to be replenished.

• In April, when cool-season grasses are expected to be growing fast, stands should be assessed to define the right strategy for each pasture. If more than 70% of the ground is covered by leaves, keep the fertilizer and herbicide program, but consider adding clover next February. When the stand covers from 40% to 70% of the ground, the forage production is compromised, and it is recommended to enhance thickness by reseeding in mid-September. Mow or graze it short (1 to 2 inches) and then drill at full seeding rate (Tall fescue: 15-20 lb/acre; Orchardgrass: 10-15 lb/acre; and Timothy: 8 lb/acre). If the forage stand covers less than 40% of the ground, it is time to start it over. The optimal planting window remains mid-September, however, burn down (i.e., glyphosate) the entire field 10 to 14 days before drilling in at the full seeding rate. Otherwise, this weak pasture will not be able to provide enough forage and weeds will most likely take it over.

• In May, exploring summer annuals is worth considering. This option can significantly enhance the forage budget, particularly in the summer months when cool-season forages enter dormancy. Forage species such as Crabgrass, Teff, Sorghum x Sudangrass can be very helpful for the forage budget, especially in July and August. More information on warm-season annual grass yield and nutritive value can be found at UTBEEF.COM(https://utbeef.tennessee.edu/forages-tennessee-variety-trials/).

These steps guide in identifying pastures in need of reseeding, ensuring ample forage yield throughout the summer. Fingers crossed for favorable weather conditions during the forage growing season. As we head into March and April, the weather forecast from the Climate Prediction Center (www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov) indicates typical temperatures and precipitation levels for Tennessee. However, counties along the southern border with North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama are showing a tendency towards above-average precipitation. Let’s keep a close watch!

Source : tennessee.edu

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