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Forage Producers Hoping for Bumper Yields

By Adam Russell

Texas forage producers are hoping improved moisture conditions across parts of the state could lead to a bumper crop this spring and summer, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.

Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension forage specialist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Overton, said soil moisture conditions in much of the state have improved but forage producers need to plan ahead to maximize yields.

North and East Texas cool-season forages, including ryegrass, looked very good following several rounds of rainfall that improved moisture conditions dramatically, Corriher-Olson said. Winter freezes set back forages like clovers, but consistent moisture followed by warmer, sunnier days has led to excellent late-winter, early spring grazing and production opportunities.

Forage producers are hoping for a good forage and hay season. Moisture will be a key component for success, but pasture management planning can help producers maximize yields and reduce input costs.

Forage producers are hoping for a good forage and hay season. Moisture will be a key component for success, but pasture management planning can help producers maximize yields and reduce input costs.

“Cool-season forages were delayed by the freezes and lack of moisture, but they’ve really come on in recent weeks,” she said. “We’re in good shape in East Texas; other parts of the state have improved somewhat. Hopefully moisture continues to move through the state and deliver timely rain, but we really need to focus on ways to maximize what moisture is at our disposal.”

For a range of tips and recommendations related to Texas forage crops, go to Corriher-Olson’s website for her weekly newsletter Forage Fax at https://foragefax.tamu.edu/.

Pasture management critical for forage producers

Corriher-Olson said rangeland and pasture management going into spring will continue to impact forage performance as the cool-season varieties give way to the warm-season forages.

Most management questions in recent weeks have been related to fertilization and weed control, she said.

Fertilizer applications for summer perennials are tricky this time of year, she said. Daytime temperatures may feel like spring and signal the need to fertilize, but applying fertilizer too early can feed cool-season forages and weeds.

Nighttime temperatures need to be in the 60s consistently before summer grasses begin actively growing, Corriher-Olson said. Waiting will allow warm-season grasses access to the nutrients and a more efficient and effective fertilizer application.

“The timing may depend on where you are in the state, but we dipped into the 40s and 50s last week,” she said. “A lot of pastures may have broken dormancy, and producers want to capitalize on the moisture, but we want to be effective with our input and avoid feeding weeds and winter forages we don’t want competing with our Bermuda grass.”

Fertilizer prices have softened over recent months, but not enough to abandon strategic planning to maximize production efficiency, she said. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous prices have been up and down, and forage producers should assume they will not return to pre-pandemic levels.

Corriher-Olson said a soil test is a good tool to help guide forage producers when considering fertilizer options and needs.

“Soil tests are important because they help you focus dollars where they are needed most,” she said. “A lot of people want to do well this year because production was so bad last year, but fertilizer is a big component of yield.”

Corriher-Olson said producers should submit soil tests as soon as possible as labs typically experience higher volumes of submissions as the season nears. Soil test bags and instructions can be found at most AgriLife Extension offices around the state. Samples are sent to the Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory in Bryan-College Station.

Weed control reduces competition

Providing an environment that forages can outcompete weeds and winter annuals is another critical management step, Corriher-Olson said. Many pastures were overgrazed as producers contended with lack of forage growth and production due to drought. A healthy introduced pasture should have 3-4 inches of grass stubble and not be grazed until grasses are 6-8 inches tall.  

In those cases, pasture rehabilitation may be in order, she said. Destocking or greatly reducing cattle numbers to allow grasses to begin recovering will be necessary. Fertilization will be an important step in the rehabilitation, but so will weed control to reduce competition for sunlight, available moisture and nutrients.

Volunteer ryegrass and winter weeds like groundsel and buttercups need to be controlled to allow warm-season grasses to grow, she said. Forage producers should identify undesirable plants and treat them with an appropriate herbicide before they bloom or seed out, she said.

In many parts of the state, rainfall and subsequent soil moisture levels will determine how quickly pastures recover, Corriher-Olson said.

“They need rest from grazing, but nutrient fertility will be important for Bermuda grass, which needs adequate potassium and phosphorous to recover from drought,” she said. “Soil moisture conditions and rainfall going forward will be another factor in how quickly those pastures bounce back.”

Producers should focus on quality over quantity

Corriher-Olson said forage producers should focus on producing the highest quality hay to meet livestock nutrition needs. Good pre-harvest management will maximize forage production as weather allows, but timing harvests correctly impacts digestibility and quality.

Waiting too long leads to increased amounts of fiber and reduced digestibility, especially during the summer heat, she said. 

Corriher-Olson said the weather outlook for the next 90 days shows equal chances for precipitation, but also higher chances of above-average temperatures. Higher temperatures mean increased evapotranspiration and potential plant stress, which can impact nutritive value.

“Quality should be the top priority when it comes to production or purchases,” she said. “The nutrients available in the forage will determine how much you must invest in supplements during the winter. Investing in high quality hay with good digestibility now can pay dividends later by reducing feed costs.”

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

A map of the 12 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension districts

A map of the 12 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension districts

CENTRAL

Soil moisture was very short to adequate. Conditions were windy and dry, and temperatures were mild. Wheat and oats were holding on. There were some reports of leaf rust and Hessian flies. Cotton planting was underway. Corn and sorghum were emerging extremely well. The light frost last week caused some concerns about potential crop losses, but many counties reported less than 1% of crops lost. Pecan and mesquite trees have started to bud and leaf out. Stock tank levels continued to drop with the lack of rainfall. Producers were spraying weeds and fertilizing in hay fields. Pastures were greening up with some summer grasses coming out of dormancy. Warmer conditions and improving pastures resulted in higher prices in the calf market, but supplemental feeding continued. Overall, rangeland and pasture conditions were very poor to fair. Livestock were in fair to good condition. Sheep and goat markets were steady.

ROLLING PLAINS

Conditions were improving overall, but some areas remained very dry. Some areas received up to 2 inches of rainfall, but some storms did produce large hail. Soil moisture levels were in good shape in some areas headed into spring, but blowing sand was a problem for some cotton farmers. Light freezes occurred, but no damage to the fruit crops were reported. Peach trees were at 50%-75% in-bloom stage. Wheat and oats were being heavily grazed. Winter wheat continued to look very poor in drier areas and good to excellent in areas with moisture with some armyworms and aphids reported in fields. Pastures looked very good and were greening up nicely. Cool-season grasses were taking off and warm-season forages were beginning to break dormancy. Stocker cattle appeared to be in very good condition with plenty of wheat to graze. Livestock diets were being supplemented in some areas.

COASTAL BEND

A recent cold front dropped temperatures into the 40s in some areas. Some areas received as much as 1 inch of rainfall. The rain was helpful, and improved soil moisture levels, but topsoil conditions remained dry in most areas. Windy conditions blew a lot of soil in corn and sorghum fields. Rain during the previous week was followed by some cotton planting. Wheat was maturing but appeared to be short and stressed due to lack of moisture. Rice fields were planted, and up to 30% complete in some areas. Corn planting was complete, and plants were emerging. Forage producers were controlling weeds in their fields. Warm-season perennial pasture grasses continued to green up but needed more moisture to encourage growth. Pasture conditions continued to suffer and desperately need a rain event. Hay was still in short supply and in the $100 per bale range. Livestock were finding good green growth to consume if pastures were not overgrazed. Local cattle prices remained at historic highs. Smaller inventories were leading to sell-offs of mature cows. Pecan trees broke dormancy.

EAST

Subsoil and topsoil conditions were adequate. Recent frosts set back green-up and forage growth. Warm-season grasses were exhibiting signs of freeze damage. Producers in Anderson County reported freeze damage to potatoes. Pasture and rangeland conditions were good. Many producers continued to use supplemental feeding to finish out the winter. Livestock were doing fair to good with supplemental feed.

SOUTH PLAINS

Wheat, pasture and rangeland conditions were very poor to fair.  Moisture ranged from very short to adequate. Extremely dry conditions continued across some counties. Producers were relying on irrigated wheat pasture and hay until grazing conditions improved. Irrigated wheat was improving as producers increased watering due to warmer temperatures. Several producers planted oats for grazing. Cattle were in fair condition. Many producers without irrigation were afraid they will be forced to plant dry. Others were still unsure what and when they will plant. Some producers started pre-irrigation ahead of planting.

PANHANDLE

The district remained dry. The overall topsoil and subsoil moisture was very short to short. Wheat and oat conditions were very poor to fair and continued to deteriorate. Producers with irrigation were applying water and barely keeping up. Soil conditions were worsening. Spring plantings were still undecided due to poor planting conditions. Dirt in dryland wheat fields was blowing on windy days. The high winds caused erosion to occur in dry fields, county roads and some native rangeland. Cattle diets were being supplemented. Preplant activity was minimal, especially tillage. The overall condition of pasture and range was very poor to poor.

NORTH

Pasture and rangeland conditions were poor to fair. The topsoil moisture was short to adequate. Scattered rainfall delivered 1-3 inches of rainfall. Some areas experienced freezing temperatures, but no frost damage was reported so far. Winter wheat was doing well, and corn was being planted throughout the district. Ryegrass was still slowly developing due to the hard freeze earlier this winter. Hay feeding slowed down as spring forage began to provide grazing. Livestock conditions were fair to good.

FAR WEST

Topsoil and subsoil levels ranged from very short to adequate. The south-central part of the region and into the higher elevations of the Davis Mountains experienced freezing temperatures and received up to 6 inches of snow. Temperatures this past week during the daytime were from the high 70s to low-80s, and nighttime temperatures were from mid-40s to mid-50s. Pasture conditions were good, but moisture conditions remained very low in some areas. The lower elevations needed rain to improve soil moisture and rangeland conditions. Growers were tilling to keep their ground from blowing. The average windspeed has been 5 mph above normal with three days averaging over 20 mph. All fields without cover crops and even some with cover crops were blown out. There was very limited moisture for the upcoming cotton season. Pre-watering continued but many growers were cutting back on acres to put more water on fewer acres. Corn planting began. Some new alfalfa fields were planted and being irrigated. Some alfalfa fields may experience some crust over which could potentially affect emergence. Irrigation continued for pecan orchards, and some bud break in a few orchards was reported. Overall pasture and rangeland conditions were very poor to poor with a few areas reporting fair conditions. Pastures remained completely bare of all but brush. Livestock were mostly healthy, but producers were moving their stock around more often and spending more on feeding cattle. Area beef cattle producers began their spring branding seasons. Kidding season continued, and producers will begin marking lambs on April 1.

WEST CENTRAL

Temperatures were cooler than normal with drizzle mid-week, but no significant rainfall. Dry, windy conditions continued to persist. Counties that received some rain continued to see improvement in wheat and pastures, but drier areas continued to decline. Wheat was in the boot stage but continued to be short and could be an issue for harvest by combines. Stock tank levels were very low. Trees and grasses were greening up. Some corn was planted, and field preparations for cotton, sorghum and Sudan grass planting were underway. Pecans, hackberries, mesquites and most fruit trees were budding and leafing out. Rangeland and pasture conditions improved with recent moisture and spring green up of warm-season grasses. Native pasture grasses were trying to grow, but growth depended on moisture availability. Some pastures remained bare. Cows were calving. Livestock looked good and have stopped eating hay to look for green grass, but some producers continued to provide supplemental feed. Many stock tanks were critically low. The cattle market remained strong with the stocker heifers selling $3 higher per hundredweight and stocker steers and feeder heifers were $2-$3 higher.

SOUTHEAST

Areas received 0.5-2 inches of rainfall. Soil moisture levels were adequate to surplus. Warm season grasses were growing but needed more moisture. Pecan trees and others were beginning to bud and bloom. Planted rice germinated, but rains delayed fieldwork. Rangeland and pasture conditions were very poor to excellent. Calf markets continued to climb spurred by favorable moisture and temperature conditions.

SOUTHWEST

Temperatures were warmer. Light rains were reported with some areas reporting up to 1.25 inches. Moisture should benefit crops, cool-season pastures, and pasture and rangeland conditions were improving. Wheat conditions were fair, and oat conditions were good. Grain corn planted earlier emerged in thick stands. All grain and forage sorghum fields were planted, and earlier planted rows were beginning to emerge. Cotton planting was underway. Irrigated crops were doing good despite the cooler weather. Early sandbur emergence was reported. Lack of rainfall and windy conditions were taking a toll on pastures and winter crops in drier areas. Burn bans continued in some areas. Average livestock body condition scores were 3-4 with little supplemental feeding taking place. Livestock markets were holding steady to high. Spring shearing was underway. Livestock and wildlife should benefit from the rains.

SOUTH

Scattered rain was reported throughout the district. Corn and sorghum planting was wrapping up, and most of the planted fields had emerged. Most crops and croplands were being irrigated. Some cotton was still being planted, and sesame planting was underway. Strawberry harvest was underway, but damp conditions were slowing harvest. Onions were doing well. Wheat and oat crops were in the soft dough stage. Some producers were tilling to prevent wind erosion. Winds were causing erosion, but also reducing soil moisture and stressing young plants. Fields were being prepared for spring food plots of sorghum and sunflowers. Spinach planting was complete, and harvest continued. Citrus, sugarcane and cool-season vegetables, including onions, were being harvested. Moisture has slightly helped some pastures, but more rain is needed. Pasture and rangeland conditions improved in a few areas but continued to decline due to a lack of moisture in most areas. Supplemental feeding continued for livestock. Producers continued to cull herds. Cattle markets were reporting above-average sale volumes, but prices continued to be strong in all classes of cattle. Feed and hay prices continued to increase. Pastures were being fertilized and recovering from winter dormancy and moisture stress.

Source : tamu.edu

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