Drought planning begins with green pastures

Don’t wait for the last green blade of grass to disappear in a drought before deciding what to do with pastured animals.

Indications are that soil moisture is rapidly diminishing in the pasture and hay fields across much of the Midwest. The current U.S. Drought Monitor Map shows that much of Iowa, parts of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan are having short term (less than six months) of drought conditions. Here in Michigan, the entire Upper Peninsula is experiencing a drought and many parts of the Lower Peninsula are also extremely dry considering it is so early in the growing season.

Farms with pasturing animals are advised to start making plans for what to do in case pasture and hay forages dry up prematurely. Long-term research studies in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming all agree that the best predictor of summer long pasture availability is the amount of rainfall received in the period of April – June of that year. With two-thirds of this period already past in a few short weeks the writing will be on the proverbial wall for the remainder of the forage growing season.

Those that plan now will be better prepared for a drought should it arrive. Making pasturing and/or feeding adjustments early in a drought situation can extend the use of pasture. Farmers should mentally run through the scenario in mid-July and they are out of pasture and only harvested enough hay to feed for three months. What would they do?

There are many options, especially the earlier the planning begins, but most options depend upon each farms situation. Below are a few to consider:

  1. Buy extra feed. Hay prices have been rising because of corn and beans taking hay acres out of production and dry weather will make the hay supply much smaller so pencil out early what you can afford to pay for local hay or standing fields of hay.
  2. Make the tough call to hold the animals off of pasture early and drylot feed them. You are using up precious feed resources but if rain returns the pasture growth will return quicker if the paddock are not over-grazed.
  3. For beef cows in gestation after weaning consider feeding baled corn stalks as a part of the winter feed, then fed with some hay, the nutritional needs of the cow can be met – if the drought lingers into the fall consider testing the stalks for high nitrate levels that could be toxic
  4. Look for fall pasture land or corn stalk fields to graze, many times we have driven by them hundreds of times but never considered a field as a possible source of feed until necessity opens our eyes (some farms have even grazed the grass in abandoned Christmas tree plantations in the past).
  5. Consider early weaning of beef calves and cull the cow herd aggressively. Early weaning reduces the nutritional needs of the cow and if done before the traditional fall cull cow shipments. Prices could be very favorable this fall.
  6. Consider planting a fall cocktail cover crop in August with hopes that rain will return on herbicide killed hay fields that need rotating, on wheat or oat stubble. In southern Michigan on harvested corn silage fields, simple mixes of oats, millet, turnips, and rape work best and can provide some great fall feed
  7. If soil moisture does return and grasses green up, at least by late August, consider topdressing pastures with a slow release nitrogen fertilizer to stimulate fall growth. Michigan State University trials have shown that 1 pound of nitrogen will produce 20 to 45 pounds of forage dry matter per acre in a normal year so for example 60 pounds of N/acre could, with fall rains, provide 900 pounds of DM/acre (60 pounds of N X 15 pounds of forage/acre). If a slow release urea is $930/ton and it cost $8 to spread it the cost of that grass forage adjusted to a hay equivalent of 18 percent moisture would be $124/ton. If you can find quality equivalent hay for less than this buy the hay, if not topdress the nitrogen

In another few weeks farms will be completing much of their first cutting hay across Michigan and the yield of the largest cutting of the year will be known. If rains have not returned by then, pasturing livestock operations should seriously go into drought planning mode.

For more information, contact Michigan State University Extension Grazing Educator, Jerry Lindquist at lindquis@msu.edu or 231-832-6139.

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