We are experiencing a prolonged period of no rain and very dry conditions have begun to develop. This may be good for hay harvest and row crop harvest but not good for pastures.
You have probably noticed grasses looking wilted, browned, not growing and the soil is very hard and cracked in lots of places. This is an act of Mother Nature but careful management of pastures in these conditions will determine how fast they recover when the rain begins again.
Overgrazing during this time can create your worst nightmare. Pastures that are overgrazed during dry periods will have weakened plants, causing shortened root depth and further lengthening the recovery period even after rain comes.
Roots are very important for plant nutrient storage and survivability. The root systems of pasture plants are key to helping the pasture survive. Overgrazed plants have a hard time surviving in the best of conditions but in these conditions will often not recover. Overgrazed pastures are also subject to lots of weeds and future growth of broomsedge, neither of which is desirable.
When the rains do return, resist the temptation to graze drought-impacted plants until they’ve fully recovered. Even when plants green up after rains, the pasture needs some time for the roots to recover. Graze too soon, and you’ll prolong the recovery period or even make recovery impossible. Make sure the plants have plenty of new growth before beginning to graze again. Grasses need 6-8 inches and legumes 4-6 inches of good growth.
One option to conserve your pastures is to allocate a “sacrifice” lot or pasture where hay is fed to minimize the damage to all pastures. This sacrifice pasture might be a low yielding/quality pasture that needs to be renovated or reseeded in the near future. Make sure there is adequate space for a number of animals and make sure there is adequate water.
A dry period may require you to be flexible in your rotational grazing plans. A pasture of adequate size for the animals in times of plentiful rain may be too small during a drought because it doesn’t produce enough forage. In a rotational grazing plan, you may need to skip pastures where the soil doesn’t hold moisture well; those areas will require additional time to recover.
Right after a drought-ending rain, applying nitrogen fertilizer can help the drought-stressed grass hay fields and pastures recover faster and store more root reserves for the winter ahead. If the soil of drought-stressed hay and pasture is low in phosphorus and potassium, it’s important to fertilize with these nutrients to ensure the crop survives through the winter. Added nutrients will help the plants grow roots and tillers which will help with spring growth as well.
Drought-stressed pasture may not produce enough forage for the rest of growing season until winter starts. You may benefit from planting some cool-season annuals or small grains to extend grazing season.
• Use conservation practices that reduce runoff and encourage infiltration of water into the soil.
• Closely monitor soil moisture. (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/)
• Prepare early for supplemental forage. During dry times, contract early for supplemental feed, or find alternative sources.
• Cull herds as necessary to maximize profits.
Ruth Correll is the UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent in Wilson County. Contact her at (615) 444-9584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.