By Larry Redmon, forage specialist at Texas A&M University.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20. Be that as it may, it is quite possible that you find yourself wondering what steps to take to minimize the negative effects of a drought the next time around.
Unless the production system is irrigated, drought will always be part of the risk associated with forage and livestock production. One immediate, and dramatic, strategy that can mitigate the negative effects of future drought events is to adjust the stocking rate of the cowherd down to the point where only 75% of the available forage is utilized.
The stocking rate should be based on several years’ worth of observations of how much forage is produced under typical management strategies. Therefore, a forage sampling program that provides information on the amount of forage produced annually from each pasture should be initiated. Although one year will seldom provide the information required, it is a start.
When stocked at 75%, livestock producers will typically not be overstocked during drought years. This prevents having to purchase hay at elevated prices while attempting to "feed your way out of a drought" during years with below-normal precipitation. A 75% stocking rate also reduces the need to liquidate stock at a time when many other producers will likely be selling their stock as well.
During years of good forage production, stocker calves may be used as flex grazers to utilize excess forage. Pasture may be provided to other producers looking for additional forage and charged based on the quantity of gain realized or on a per-head, permonth basis. Excess forage in good years may also be harvested and conserved as hay or sold to local hay producers wishing to harvest more acres.
A delicate balance. Forages should never be grazed to the roots under any circumstance; removal of most or all green photosynthetic material (leaves) deprives the plant of the ability to convert sunlight into the carbohydrates (energy) vital to plant growth. Decreased carbohydrate production results in decreased root production, thus reducing the plant’s ability to obtain necessary moisture and nutrients from the soil profile.
The relationship between leaves and roots is critical at all times, but much more so during periods of moisture stress. Therefore, it is important that an adequate level of forage residue be left in the pasture. Besides allowing the plant to perform photosynthetic activity, adequate forage residue reduces the amount of soil evaporation of vital moisture and allows for better infiltration of any precipitation that is received, rather than losing it as overland fl ow from the site.
During drought, hay supplies are in short supply and are higher priced. Emergency supplies of hay should be purchased as early as possible in the season when prices are typically lower. Waiting until the need for hay becomes apparent increases feed costs. To stretch hay supplies, use corn or other plant byproducts while maintaining 50% of the diet as roughage. Corn will substitute for good-quality hay at a 1:2.25 ratio—1 lb. of corn to 2.25 lb. of hay. Be aware, however, that trying to "feed your way out of a drought" can be very expensive.
Fertilizer is never inexpensive, and the first inclination of livestock producers is to withhold fertilizer during a time of drought. This is seldom a wise strategy. Well-fertilized forages tolerate drought better and recover quicker than poorly fertilized forages. It is generally better to have fertilizer in the field waiting on a precipitation event than to withhold fertilizer.