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Is Your Summer Grazing Plan Drought Proof?

By Victor Shelton

Getting the first cutting of hay done this year was challenging in many areas. Forages were already slightly ahead of normal maturity due to an early spring, and subsequent weather conditions—either timely rains pushing harvest dates further or dry spells—varied depending on location. Despite these challenges, most hay fields with good fertility were dense and yielded well, except for areas experiencing dry conditions.

Living in Indiana, the old adage is, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” While weather patterns can vary widely depending on location and time of year, most areas do experience consistent patterns over time that help define their climate and weather characteristics. Understanding these patterns is crucial for predicting weather events, managing agricultural practices and preparing for potential hazards like storms or droughts.

In recent years, the Midwest is seeing a trend towards wetter springs followed by drier summers and falls. The variability of weather patterns means conditions can still vary widely from season to season and year to year. Therefore, it is always important to have some type of contingency plan. By implementing a contingency plan for your pasture system, you can minimize the impact of unforeseen events on livestock health, pasture productivity and overall farm profitability. It ensures preparedness, promotes resilience and enhances the ability to adapt to changing conditions in agriculture.

I can’t say it often enough: maintain good soil cover. That is true for both row crops and forages. That cover protects the soil from erosion, helps to maintain moisture by slowing evaporation, increases infiltration of rain received, and keeps the soil cooler.

When grazing tall cool-season forages like orchardgrass and fescue, you should have at least four inches of residual left behind— that’s the shortest stuff, not the tallest. Warm-season forages benefit from even more left behind. If things start getting hot and dry, more cover left behind is always beneficial.

If the dry period continues long enough, even rotating and maintaining that needed residual will eventually give in to the reality that if you continue to graze, you will be hurting future potential forage yield most likely for the rest of the year and perhaps into the next. It is at this point in time, unless you have somewhere else to move the animals to or something else to graze (annuals, hay aftermath/regrowth), that the livestock need to be moved to a dry lot and fed hay or other stored forage/feed until moisture has returned and sufficient regrowth is present and ready to graze again.

Looking back at the drought of 2012, hindsight is 20/20. I pushed very hard that year for fellow producers to not overgraze, get off pastures, feed hay and wait for rain. That was difficult for some because hay was also short that year.

I took clippings and measured residual in August and early September on several farms that year, including both people that pulled livestock off and fed hay, and also ones who continued to graze.  Most that pulled them off fed hay for five to eight weeks. When the rains finally returned in early October, the pastures that had been deferred from grazing quickly came out of dormancy caused by the drought and produced a good amount of fall forage.

The fields that were continued to be grazed hardly recovered and were still in poor condition the following spring. Continuing to graze stressed forages with no recovery is very detrimental to the forages. The plant is weakened from being grazed under these conditions. The roots of the plant are sharply pruned back, reducing even further the ability to seek moisture, and when it does finally rain, a lot of energy will go to replacing roots to sustain the plant prior to providing energy for leaf growth.

By feeding hay during that dry spell instead of continuing to graze, those fields recovered very well and provided a lot of good grazing and even some stockpile for a few people. When I measured the amount of forage in early November after recovery, the pastures that were rested instead of being grazed averaged a little over a fourfold advantage in forage present. Those protected pastures looked good the following spring, whereas some producers were having to decide whether they needed to replant or not. Feeding hay in the middle of summer in this case reduced the total amount of hay fed for many of those same producers.

I’m not going to borrow trouble, but we always need to have that contingency plan. Paul Harvey once stated, “Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”—how true that is.

Warm-season perennial grasses such as big bluestem, Indiangrass, or switchgrass could be a good addition to the grazing system. These forages like hot weather and grow roots that travel deep into the soil after moisture and nutrients and are much more drought-tolerant than cool-season forages such as orchardgrass or tall fescue. A field or two of warm-season grasses can quite often help you keep grazing through a droughty period. They do have to be managed slightly differently but are well worth the trouble. There are financial assistance programs available to help establish these forages. Contact your local soil and water conservation office for more information.

Remember, it is not about maximizing a grazing event, but maximizing a grazing season! Keep an eye on the forages, the weather, and cover, and keep on grazing!

Source : osu.edu

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