Managing forage during a drought

Tim Schnakenberg answers common forage management questions

Tim Schnakenberg is an agronomy specialist with University of Missouri Extension. As the temperatures have gotten hotter and fields have gotten dryer, he has gotten more questions about how best to manage local pastures.

Here are some of those questions and his answers.

 

Q: What factors should landowners consider regarding pasture management for this time of year?

If moisture is severely limited, there are few, if any options, for growing more forage. Those who may have irrigation will be in the best shape. We like to see sudangrass or millet planted by June 15, but in some cases, it could be planted later. In a drought, however, there is little opportunity for it to germinate and fully produce for the summer. Producers will need to conserve their pastures by limiting grazing and not giving the whole farm away to the cows at one time. A management-intensive grazing system helps to meet that goal. Those that already have established warm-season grasses like bermudagrass, Caucasian bluestem, big bluestem, Indiangrass, crabgrass, switchgrass or Eastern Gamagrass, will have a few more options for grazing into the summer. Those with tall fescue as their primary forage crop may be forced to feed hay or sell down the cow herd as the drought persists. By mid-summer, the best we can do is make plans for fall grazing. That begins in Mid-August by applying nitrogen fertilizer on good fescue stands and closing gates for stockpiling to occur.

Q: How can forage rye and forage wheat help producers meet pasture needs?

Winter annuals such as cereal rye, triticale and wheat can be used to supplement fall and winter grazing and hay supplies. They are especially beneficial in fields where corn, sudangrass or millet was used the previous summer or in dormant stands of bermudagrass, crabgrass or Caucasian bluestem. They are not recommended in native grass stands due to the stress they can put on the grass before or during dormancy or as dormancy breaks in the spring. Cereal rye is considered the most productive for fall and early winter grazing, followed by triticale. Wheat may be less useful for fall grazing, but there will be some grazing in the fall or winter. It will produce more abundantly in the spring. For that reason, wheat can also be used as early spring hay or baleage crop. Rye will mature out early in the spring, and the quality drops rapidly unless stocking density is managed to keep it vegetative longer. In good falls when cereal rye is planted early, and we have plenty of moisture, there is sometimes a hay crop that can be taken, but that will limit the grazing potential of the crop.

 

Q: What effects could this have on cost and grazing livestock?

What makes these forages desirable is the ability to continue grazing into the winter when most producers are already feeding expensive hay. Every day a cow is grazing for her nutrition versus being fed hay, the cost savings are significant, especially following a drought year when hay costs are high. Producers should figure out their cost per day to feed hay and compare it to forage grazing. We figure that grazing something like fescue in the fall costs about .45 cents per cow per day. Hay costs are often three times that figure per day. This year, with exceptionally high hay costs, that number can skyrocket further.

Q: What kind of maintenance is necessary while installing these practices?

At planting or around emergence, apply phosphate and potash according to soil test recommendations and about 50-75 lbs nitrogen per acre. An additional amount of 40-60 lbs nitrogen per acre can be used in the early spring as needed. We generally recommend grazing winter annuals starting around 8-10 inches and taking it down to 4 inches. Repeat the cycle as long as growth continues. This works best in a management-intensive grazing system where you can control the cattle grazing and have options for rest and recovery periods. Strip grazing these fields is especially useful to conserve grass further. Using step-in posts and polywire reels, the forage can be rationed out to the cattle and grass is saved for later feeding.

Q: What are the advantages to using rye and wheat?

The costs of feeding hay will be very high this winter. Every day a cow grows, there will be cost savings. The quality of winter annuals is hard to beat. We tested a triticale stand in southern Barry County, Missouri this year. On Feb. 13, the forage tested 22% protein and 68% TDN. Those numbers resemble alfalfa quality when the growth is young.

Q: What disadvantages come with using rye and wheat?

If a producer has many good fields of healthy tall fescue, the fescue will be adequate in providing fall and winter pasture on its own. One acre of properly stockpiled fescue will meet the nutrient requirements of a 1000 lb beef cow for 75 days or more. There are many that will plant winter annuals into a healthy tall fescue stand. That may not always pay off. If conditions are good for fescue to grow, fescue itself will be productive. Those same conditions will allow winter annuals to be productive and compete with the fescue. Additional forage may be obtained, but the question is if the additional seed cost and drill bill will pay off in this situation. Interseeding into a poor fescue stand or a stand of grass that has less fescue and many summer annual grass weeds like broomsedge or purple top, may be a better scenario than into a strong fescue stand.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information, contact any of these MU Extension agronomy specialists in southwest Missouri: Tim Schnakenberg in Stone County, (417) 357-6812; Jill Scheidt in Barton County, (417) 682-3579 and Sarah Kenyon in Howell County, (417) 256-2391.