Make the Most of Your Forage In Drought Years
Though late June and early July rains have eased 2021 conditions in much of the central Corn Belt, farmers in the Upper Midwest—including much of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan—some are still facing “abnormally dry” to “severe drought”, while the western United States in early July was consistently rated from “severe drought” to “exceptional drought” by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
This has many livestock producers and crop growers concerned about how to best manage and utilize forage during drought in their operations.
Manage grazing to maximize fall forage recovery opportunities
Careful management of grazing land should be a part of every year’s plan. This especially includes years that begin dry as 2021 did for most of the northern half of the United States. University of Wisconsin Extension forage agronomist Dennis Cosgrove says that while late summer and fall rains can provide the opportunity for late season forage growth, producers must be careful to allow pastures to take advantage of that moisture by maintaining as much plant health as possible during the summer grazing season.
He recommends not allowing cattle to run the entire pasture when forage is short. Doing so allows them to eat off most of the leaves. Less leaves reduce the plants’ ability to catch sunlight and starve the roots. Instead, he says try rotational grazing. This gives pastures time to rest and build up energy reserves. Plants are then ready to recover when rain does come. Orchardgrass, bromegrass and tall fescue should regrow to 8 to 10 inches before being grazed again.
Keep forage perennials perennial—let them rest before winter
Pastures that were severely overgrazed in summer months need to be allowed to rest going into winter. Cosgrove recommends leaving at least a 4-inch stubble in pastures of orchardgrass and bromegrass in the fall so those cool-season grasses can be ready for new growth in the spring.
Iowa State University agronomist Stephen K. Barnhart says that for perennial forage legumes and grasses to “harden” adequately for winter, they need five to six weeks of uninterrupted growth to accumulate nutrients in the roots before going dormant for the winter. If circumstances require additional cutting or grazing in the fall or early winter, he recommends waiting until or after a killing freeze (23-24* F for several hours). Leave a 5- to 6-inch stubble if haying. Leave an average of 3 inches of lower stem bases for grazed grasses.
Fall fertilization can also be beneficial in helping drought-stressed forage stands overwinter.
Frostseeding or interseeding to bolster thinned pastures in late winter or early spring is another option for boosting forage yield next year.
Annual forage alternatives for dry years
In some situations, you may still be able to plant forages in mid- to late-summer. This may boost your forage stores for the coming winter.
Michigan State University has offered suggestions for annual crops that could be incorporated to stretch limited forage supplies and budgets. This includes the summer planting of warm-season forages such as forage sorghum, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, teff, pearl millet or foxtail millet. These forages can be grazed, baled or chopped. Warm-season forages should reach harvestable yields in about eight weeks from planting.
For fall planting (or next spring), MSU recommends small grains, such as oats mixed with field peas for protein planted following wheat harvest or brassicas such as turnip, radish and forage rape, which are cold tolerant and could continue provide grazing into December. Triticale or rye planted in September can be an early spring pasture or haylage option to double-crop with silage corn next year.
Regardless of how you make the most of your forages in dry years like 2021, Kussmaul Seeds is here to help you find the right seed for your needs. Our forage seed lineup includes a wide range of cool-season and warm-season grasses, forage legumes, brassicas and proprietary blends.
Contact one of our representatives today to learn more about the right forage options for your farm or download our catalog to see the entire Kussmaul Seeds offering of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, forage and small grains.
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