Getting through one of the toughest droughts most of us can remember can prove to be quite a challenge. It is easy to hope the drought is going away with the cooler than normal August temperatures and abnormal rainfall compared to July. Most livestock producers are concerned with feeding animals and are often caught up in seeing them as the final product. As tough as the decision is to sell off some animals due to drought, the real product being produced is forages. Livestock are only a conversion factor to get the forages into a more marketable form. It is very difficult to sell off pasture and get more after the drought. Therefore, pasture care and management for survival, plus performance to feed animals is critical. Too often pastures are viewed as just at the mercy of Mother Nature and we get what we get. However, some folk’s pastures just never seem to be so impacted as others, therefore, management inputs must be important.
What happens next may be a greater detriment to pastures than what has happened to date. Even though cooked by the high temperatures and not growing, the majority of forages have slipped into weakened dormancy rather than death at this point. This is particularly true of Tall Fescue, our predominate Ozark pasture grass. These plants will have to pull energy reserves from weaker root systems in order to shoot up new green leaves once rains start. Once the leaves get 3 to 4 inches long, the plant can switch it’s food source to photosynthesis, taking energy from sunlight for additional growth and rebuilding root systems. This is a critical part where stronger roots will be needed to keep the plants alive during winter dormancy and for additional energy to begin the spring growth process. As interviews with producers already show, the urge will be to quit feeding hay supplies and get animals back on pasture as soon as possible. This could result in greater long term losses in exchange for short term gains.
Pasturing of short grasses is often called ‘picking’ by grazers. It is a term that should send up red flag warnings about pasture management. Continuing to bite off short leaves causes plants to always be pulling on root energy to grow new leaves. Eventually the plant dies from the stress. This can happen this fall as we turn back out on pasture and result in a lot of winter kills. Hay feeding while pastures recover will go farther in warm weather than cold. The animal needs are not as great and less hay is wasted through trampling in the mud. An additional important benefit is that resting pastures are accumulating more grazing days than stressed grazing, so the total days to be able to graze is greater if we defer grazing until plants are adequately recovered. Normally an 8-inch height is a good guide to begin grazing cool season grasses with a minimum growing season grazing height of 3 to 4 inches.
Weeds will probably be worse next year from reduced competition of a weakened grass stand. Allowing grasses to better recover before winter will in turn result in stronger plants to compete with weeds next spring. Rotation grazing to flash graze the weeds when they are young and tender will help control weeds, which can actually be good forage at that stage. This graze-rest rotation will not harm the grasses either. Unfortunately hard grazing to make them eat those weeds which have matured beyond quality forage is often viewed as the way to get ahead of them. This only accelerates the problem because the first thing grazed and thus stressed the most is the desirable forage plants. This further weakens and opens the stand providing that much more opportunity for weed seedlings.
Supplemental seedings of wheat, cereal rye or annual ryegrass into weaker grass stands could be a good option to help rebuild forage supplies for winter grazing or early spring haying. While allowing the growth time for these new forages, the existing forages are getting a much needed rest period for survival. Oats can also be used for quicker fall pasture, but will winter kill and not give the spring grazing of other winter annuals. The opportunity to dormant overseed legumes in January or to notill clover in September should not be overlooked. These plants improve forage quality and diversity, establish quickly and fill in voids in the grass stand.
With adversity always comes some opportunity. Another possibility is to replace some Fescue stands that have the harmful endophyte with other perennial forages including consideration of Fescue with the livestock friendly endophyte. These already weakened and less productive stands will be easier killed by allowing 4 to 6 inches of regrowth to weaken the roots and then spraying with a total kill herbicide such as glyphosate. An additional benefit is that supplemental winter and summer forages can be produced on this field while killing out the old stand and it’s seed bank in the soil.
Fertility should be addressed for new seedings, as well as, salvaging existing stands. If the old stand was stressed due to lack of fertility, new seedlings will do even worse. Soil testing and fertilizer application according to known needs is also important to stand recovery. Deficiencies in needed elements compound with the weather and grazing stresses often results in stand loss. While stands may not be ready to respond to high rates of nitrogen, 30 pounds of actual nitrogen on more acres can make a world of difference in revitalizing root systems for improved fall growth, winter survival and faster rebound in the spring.
Myron Hartzell, Natural Resources Conservation Service grassland specialist in Dallas County, Missouri.


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