Tips for Helping Fescue Pastures Survive the Summer Heat
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- Keep forage stubble height high– A higher forage stubble height increases your cool season pasture’s water-holding capacity and re-growth potential. This is due to several factors. One, a greater leaf density reduces evaporation of soil moisture by slowing the wind speed at the soil surface; and two, taller forage slows raindrops from summer storms as they fall, allowing rain to seep into the soil instead of quickly running off. Taller forage also shades the soil surface, keeping it cooler. When grazing pastures, leave at least 4 inches of residual before rotating to a new pasture or moving animals to a dry lot. When mowing pastures, make sure to raise the mower deck or bush hog to at least 6 inches.
- Increase soil organic matter – Once soil organic matter is degraded from erosion or new construction, it takes quite a bit of time to build back up. Clay soils lacking in organic matter compact easily, reducing pore space for water infiltration. Organic matter in the soil acts like a sponge, holding onto moisture and nutrients longer, making them more available to the plants. Soil organic matter also improves aeration and soil structure, allowing roots to grow deeper into the soil, which also improves the plant’s access to moisture and nutrients. There are two ways you can increase organic matter:
- Drag pasture manure piles when it’s hot and dry (helps distribute organic matter from manure while also exposing parasite eggs to killing UV rays).
- Spread composted manure from barns. It’s important to compost first to kill parasite eggs and to avoid drawing nitrogen out of the soil as the microbes in the manure work to break down the stall bedding.
- Plant a summer annual – A summer annual forage such as millet or crabgrass can fill in bare areas in the pasture or gaps caused by wilting clover, provide additional grazing when fescue is semi-dormant, and provide shade to fescue to help keep the soil temperature down, decreasing evaporative losses. Because these forages are annuals, they need to be re-seeded each year; although, crabgrass tends to be a prolific re-seeder and typically comes back from year to year once established. Millet, although not as palatable to horses as crabgrass, grows taller (therefore providing more shade) and is more drought tolerant than crabgrass. A dwarf variety of Pearl Millet is preferred for grazing situations.
- Provide rest – Although it may be tempting to allow animals access to the entire property when it seems like forage growth has stalled, rest periods for the pasture are still extremely important. Overgrazing forages, especially cool season varieties, during hot/dry conditions further damage the plant’s ability to recover following a rain event by stealing necessary root carbohydrate reserves. This in turn shrinks the root structure below ground, further limiting the plant’s access to vital nutrients. If forage growth has completely stalled, feeding hay in a dry lot temporarily may save your pasture and facilitate a more speedy recovery.