To maximize forage production through the summer, producers should take this time to establish and begin implementing a plan to:
1) Evaluate Pastures for Drought Related Damage
2) Begin Pasture Renovation if Needed
3) Control Pasture Weeds
4) Establish Proper Soil Fertility
5) Set Up Grazing Systems to Reach Success
Let’s talk first about drought related matters…Did you know that sections of Alabama still remain in extreme drought? Furthermore, the northern counties of East Central Alabama are still in a severe drought as of 02/27/2017. To look up the drought status of your county, click here to go to the Alabama Drought Monitor.
Pasture Evaluation and Renovation:
As we enter the spring green up in drought recovery years, pasture assessment can help producers evaluate the impact of the drought on their summer perennial pastures. NRCS has an excellent system for examining pastures, and their Guide to Pasture Condition Scoring can be viewed here. In brief, once summer perennials emerge, you will want to determine what species are present (is this the type of forage you desire, or have weeds taken over?) and how well the forages cover your pasture (what percentage of the ground is covered by plants and what percentage is left bare?), plus other important factors.
If pastures grade poorly, with low amounts of desired summer grasses emerging after green up, you may need to consider pasture renovation. Here is a quick guideline to use when determining the amount of renovation you may need:
- If you get a 70% or greater stand of your summer perennial pasture grasses, your pasture is well on its way to recovering without much help. It should recover quickly with proper grazing strategies, weed control, and desired soil fertility. You will want to take care of this pasture as it emerges. Do not allow animals to graze too early, but you should expect good recovery under correct management.
- If a 40-70% stand emerges, pastures should still fully recover with weed control, proper fertility, grazing management, and perhaps a bit more patience. Though forage emergence is lower in stands of 40-70%, there are still adequate tillers underground. Between tillers and seed production, pastures should recover by fall. If these pastures are still thin in the fall, overseeding for winter annuals and/or legumes may prove helpful to keep soil covered and provide grazing through winter.
- In pastures with a stand <40%, much patience and effort will be needed for pasture recovery. Proper soil fertility and weed control are still important, but you may also need to re-establish desired forages in such pastures or consider utilizing a summer annual in some scenarios. You may also want to utilize winter annuals and legumes until the pasture has recovered. Click here to see the suggested planting dates for Alabama forages, and be wise if you decide to work towards re-establishing lost stands. Remember that newly planted grass will need adequate moisture and proper care to survive. It may not be a good idea to plant new perennial stands immediately if we remain in drought conditions.
Weed control is a necessary part of pasture recovery. Weeds will compete with desired forage species for soil nutrients and sunlight. If pastures became bare during the drought, weeds were given an ideal scenario for growth. After this, weeds can smother out our already weakened stands of summer grasses as they attempt to emerge post-winter. There are two types of weed control you can do now:
- Winter Weed Control: Winter broadleaf weeds may not seem like much of an issue right now. But as we continue into spring, their presence and growth will overshadow desired summer forages as they attempt to emerge. Furthermore, such weeds are stealing valuable nutrients from the soil. Winter broadleaf weeds can be controlled now in most pastures with the usage of products like Sharpen, 2,4-D, Grazon, and Weedmaster. Make sure to read labels for guidelines, and only use herbicides on pastures when and where such products are labeled for use. If you have questions, contact a member of the Animal Science and Forages team and look up weed control options here.
- Summer Weed Control: You can treat summer perennial pastures before emergence with pre-emergent herbicide (Prowl H20). Before spraying pre-emergent, it is important to evaluate pasture emergence. Spraying after summer forages have begun to emerge may set desirable plants back. If you use Prowl H20, it is valuable to know that a supplemental label has been released that will allow you to use Prowl on certain pastures post-emergence, in the growing season, after cutting. See supplemental label here.
Proper soil fertility and pH are necessary for optimum production in all years. However, proper soil conditions following drought are essential for pasture recovery. Take a soil test in all pastures today and correct soil deficiencies to allow pastures the opportunity to succeed. Click here for a more in depth discussion of soil testing.
Proper Grazing Strategies:
As summer forages emerge, it is important to correctly manage and graze recovering pastures. Remind yourself that the green leaves of grass are essential for the plant’s overall health and sustainability. Grass leaves catch sunlight that the plant uses to make energy (plant food). If we graze pastures too low, we greatly reduce the amount of leaf available to catch sunlight. This reduces the ability of the plant to make energy, and leads to slower pasture growth and recovery. Now is the time to set up a grazing system to allow you to rotate animals through pastures. Rotational grazing will allow your animals to better utilize the forage available in each pasture, and will increase forage growth since you keep animals from eating specific areas down too low. Healthier pastures will produce more forage, more quickly-allowing your animals better nutrition.
Now is the time to create and begin implementing a plan to allow your pastures to fully recover from drought! Be proactive by taking the steps above to ensure your success.
Sarah Dickinson, M.S.
Alabama Cooperative Extension System
Regional Extension Agent I – Animal Science & Forages
Ph.D. Student – Reproductive Physiology/Molecular Biology
Serving Chambers, Clay, Cleburne, Coosa, Lee, Randolph, Shelby, Talladega, and Tallapoosa Counties