Ready to recover
Take steps this fall to position stressed pastures, hay fields for a rally next spring
Lately, MFA Range and Pasture Specialist David Moore has opened each of his livestock producer meetings with an exercise in imagination. He asks the farmers in the room to close their eyes, think of the greenest grass they’ve ever seen, and picture themselves walking through the lush forage.
“Now, open your eyes,” Moore tells them, adding this assurance. “Trust that God is going to bring rain again. It is going to get better.”
Perhaps the approach is a bit unorthodox, but Moore said his mission is help improve the producers’ spirits as much as it is to improve their forages. For many, the perfect storm of high fertilizer prices, severe drought and reduced hay and pasture production has taken a heavy toll, not only on their bottom line but also on their frame of mind.
“I try to look at their mood when they get there, and I try to look at their mood when they leave,” Moore said. “And my hope is that it’s a little bit better.”
His advice is simple and straightforward—while producers may think they can’t afford to put money into fertility and weed control right now, they really can’t afford not to.
“The longer you wait, the worse it’s going to get,” Moore said. “We’re looking at an awful lot of acres that are grubbed all the way to the ground. If we just graze it all winter like we’re doing, we don’t put any plant food on it until springtime, and we don’t control the weeds, it’s going to take a long time for those fields to turn around.”
Throughout MFA territory, producers saw hay tonnage reduced 30% to 50% or even more this season, Moore said, due mainly to lack of water and nutrients. Many forage producers chose to cut back or eliminate fertilizer applications last spring, so their pastures and hay fields didn’t get the early growth they needed to withstand the dry weather that settled over the summer and continued into the fall.
At press time in late October, 100% of Missouri was in some stage of drought, with half of the state ranging from severe to exceptional levels, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The worst conditions remain in south-central and southwest Missouri along with northwest Arkansas and southeast Kansas.
Despite the persistent drought, Moore insists that producers can take heart. There’s plenty of time between now and the next growing season to get pastures and hay fields back in shape. He suggests three key steps to take this fall:
1. Allow overgrazed forages to recover by moving cattle to a “sacrifice” pasture.
2. Apply phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), necessary nutrients for healthy root growth and tolerance to drought and winter stress.
3. Control weeds, which can become more opportunistic and competitive under drought conditions.
“If we allow forages to rest and give them some fertilizer, they have the ability to repair themselves over the winter,” Moore explained. “If we’re primarily putting P and K out, it’s not going anywhere. We don’t lose it like we do nitrogen. Just let it be there. When it does rain, it’ll go to work on those roots. Come springtime and we apply some nitrogen, all of a sudden that field will come back to life.”
Herbicide applications should also accompany the plant food applications, Moore said. Weed control is especially important during abnormally dry conditions.
“Every time we have a drought, the weed situation goes from bad to worse over the winter,” he said. “When forages are grazed absolutely to the ground, there’s lots of exposure for those weed seeds to come out and compete with desirable plants, which are already stressed.”
In the absence of a soil test or exact recommendations from a trusted MFA adviser, Moore suggests applying a fertilizer analysis of 18-46-60 (N-P-K ratio) along with 18 ounces of DuraCor herbicide and 4 ounces of Soy Plus, a methylated seed oil, per acre. He said DuraCor is his herbicide of choice because of its wide-spectrum control of range and pasture weeds, including broadleaves, and extended residual control.
A convenient and cost-effective way to accomplish both is through the UltiGraz Pasture Weed & Feed system, available at many MFA locations. The system allows a concentrated herbicide solution to be blended with dry fertilizer granules, so plant nutrients and weed-control products can be spread at the same time.
When resources are already stretched thin, Moore said UltiGraz can help by allowing one less trip across the field and one less application cost while protecting the potential for higher forage yields. In fact, Moore said, for every pound of weeds removed, producers can expect 2 to 5 pounds of grass to grow in its place.
“The real benefit of weed control is we don’t have something out there stealing water and plant food,” he said. “All the moisture and all the nutrients go for the benefit of the forages, which is what we want to grow. That’s why we want weeds gone.”
In the meantime, for those left with limited pastures and poor-quality hay this fall and winter, Moore said providing supplemental protein tubs, liquid feeds and forage extender cubes can help ensure their animals receive proper nutrition. He also said covering hay with tarps or storing it inside a shed or barn can help preserve as much quality as possible. Left uncovered, 25% of net-wrapped hay and 45% of twine-tied bales can be lost to the weather in the first year.
“Basically, everything we’re doing right now is betting on next year,” Moore said. “We can’t fix the debacle that we’ve had this year. We just have to make our way through it.”
While these rule-of-thumb recommendations are a good starting point to manage forages this fall, Moore encourages producers to visit with their MFA livestock specialist, agronomist or key account manager to get specific guidance for their individual situations.
“The good news is that we live in an area that can recover quickly,” Moore said. “If we do our homework, get the fertilizer out there ahead of time, get the animals off the ground so it can rest, and do everything we can on our part to stop the weeds, I truly believe we will be in better shape next spring.
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