Be Careful What You Pray For
Jul 14, 2012
Preserving your Pastures
Think of your fields and pastures like they're an extension of your lawn. Avoid watering/irrigating them during the hottest parts of the day and irrigate them only when your forages need it.
In a perfect world, alfalfa should receive moisture within 10 to 15 days following harvesting to help promote root growth and plant regrowth for additional hay cuttings or grazing. This is obviously not happening this season, nor did it happen last year in many parts of the country. So if you can afford to, irrigate your alfalfa within that 10- to 15-day window. If you can't, keep the faith and keep praying for rain.
My wife teases me about how obsessed with the weather forecasts I am. In the spring of 2011, we experienced one of the wettest springs ever. I was literally praying for dry weather. It happened! We had an eight-week drought last July and August. Then I, along with most every other producer, started praying for rain. My wife told me to be careful what I ask for. She was right, as always. We experienced the worst flooding last September in almost 40 years! Needless to say, this season I’m laying off the weather prayers. Our pastor was right, too. He told us to pray always with all expectation of receiving what you ask for. Last season was proof that prayer works, and that the Lord has a sense of humor.
Forage selection. If you live in an area where drought is common, such as everywhere in the U.S. but Hawaii this season, select "tame" or native species that display some drought resistance. For example, due to its vast root system, alfalfa is one of the most drought-resistant forages available. When water is not available, it actually stops growing and goes dormant. This helps maintain its presence in the stand through long periods of drought. It is also important to note that all varieties of forages are not created equal. Some, including alfalfa, crested wheatgrass, orchardgrass, wheatgrass and smooth bromegrass, are more drought-resistant than others. The variety of alfalfa we plant is a sunken crown with a huge taproot. We chose the sunken crown variety because we seeded our pastures with it. The crown, or heart, of the plant is below the surface of the soil so hoof traffic won’t be likely to damage the plant. The massive, deep taproot establishes quickly and will go far below the soil surface to find moisture, especially in a drought year.
Reduce expectations. If you’re forced to cut back on the amount you irrigate during the active growing season, concentrate water usage on your best-producing and newest hay fields. Also, lower your cattle, pig, sheep, etc., stocking rates to reduce overgrazing and excessive hoof traffic on the drought-stressed forages.
Turn out. If possible, delay turning out your livestock on pastures. If you graze your plants too early during a drought, you will stress them further and increase the amount of rest needed before they can replenish their energy reserves. If possible, turn out first onto pastures with native species from your area. They will be more resilient during a drought than pastures or fields that you planted from scratch or that are not well established yet.
Grazing systems. In order to maintain healthy plant communities, avoid or defer grazing pastures that were heavily grazed in the previous grazing season. In other words, graze pastures that were rested or lightly grazed the previous season. Rotational grazing systems are more effective during drought than continuous grazing systems since periodic rests help plants maintain strength for regrowth. If you have a rotational grazing system, shorten your grazing periods by moving animals more frequently.
A good rule of thumb is to maintain 4"-5" of stubble after every harvest, either by your livestock or mechanically and at the end of the growing/grazing season. This stubble assists the plants in surviving the droughty conditions by encouraging root growth and maintaining their competitive advantage while assisting in capturing the fall rains and winter snow, both of which will give your pasture a head start next year. Stubble or residue also eventually turns into litter, which in turn increases the moisture retention and fertility of your pastures and hay fields.
Rest. Do not return to a pasture until plants appear vigorous and growth has resumed. Don’t overgraze your pastures with the expectation that the drought will end next year. As is painfully obvious for most of us, drought cycles often persist for several years. Overgrazing will result in the loss of important forage species, increased bare ground, and noxious weed invasions like thistle and multi-floral rose -- both of which are darn near impossible to eradicate once established.
Use everything. Stockpile forages throughout the grazing season whether you are expecting or having a drought. In other words, reserve pastures and fields. Keep livestock off of certain pastures throughout the entire season as an insurance policy. If you don’t experience a drought, you can use those stockpiled pastures to extend your grazing season and save yourself from having to feed hay too early in the fall and risk coming up short in the spring before your pastures are ready for your livestock to be turned out onto them. Always assume that a drought will continue year after year, and maybe you’ll luck out and have a perfect growing season instead! Don’t count on it, but it could happen. Maybe. Someday. In a galaxy far, far away.