Managing Drought-Stressed Pastures

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Currently, about three quarters of Polk County is considered by the U.S. drought
monitor to be under moderate drought conditions and the lowest quarter of the county is under a severe drought. Unfortunately, it has been a bad fall for re-seeding fescue pastures or planting winter annuals. The following tips will help save your pastures from complete desiccation and ensure a best chance for rebound once a rainfall event does occur.

During times of drought, it’s often tempting to open all the gates and allow your horses or livestock to graze any remaining forage that can be found. However, this not only damages the current forage by removing vital energy-producing and ground-shading leaf area, but reduces root depth and extends the recovery period once the dry conditions subside. Grazing continued on drought-stressed forage can reduce the pasture’s productivity for not one, but for many future grazing seasons. The best management strategy to reduce pasture damage is to select a
“sacrifice pasture”. A sacrifice pasture is one that you knowingly damage, by containing all livestock and feeding stored or other sources of emergency forage (such as crop residues), as a means to save the remaining pasture land. Permanently installed sacrifice or dry lots are essential to smaller acreages or farms operating with higher than recommended stocking rates. If you currently only utilize one continuous pasture, you can also create a sacrifice area by restricting animals to a smaller portion of the pasture- utilizing temporary confinement tools such as electrified polywire fencing or livestock panels.

Of course, a sacrifice pasture or dry lot must contain plenty of water and shade, but choosing your worst pasture as a means for renovation can be a great tool. Just as poorly producing animals are often culled, so too should your pastures. A pasture with fewer than 50% desirable forage plants is a good candidate for renovation. By choosing the lowest producing pasture as your sacrifice area, you are able to remove the majority of the existing competitive forage, trample problem weeds, and deposit a high concentration of recycled nutrients from manure left by fed livestock. This winter, clover or annual ryegrass can be frost seeded into damaged
pastures for additional early spring grazing. This is also a great time to consider planting a more drought-tolerant forage specie in these designated sacrifice areas next spring. Furthermore, feeding hay now and deferring grazing until winter allows you to source additional hay if needed, before area supply dwindles and prices increase.

Deferred grazing allows your forage the best chance to accumulate with even the smallest amount of rainfall. This season, our chances for a normal fescue stockpile is dwindling, but on pastures with ample remaining forage cover, even a minor amount of precipitation can contribute to some attributable forage growth, which can then be grazed later. The more forage cover that is left on a pasture, the better those plants will be at combating and recovering from dry conditions, as a remaining forage canopy will reduce the amount of water evaporated from the soil and reduce surface soil temperature.

Once drought conditions subside, it may be tempting to return animals to pasture as soon as green-up occurs. Grazing forage that has been weakened by drought too soon can cause further damage and increase recovery time. It’s best to stick recommended grazing height guidelines for your forage type (6-8 inches for fescue and 3-4 inches for bermudagrass). Once warm season perennials are dormant, grazing damage will be greatly reduced, although quality will do the same.