The ‘D . . . . . .’ Word Is Back . . . Again!

Stan Smith, PA, Fairfield County OSU Extension

Despite suffering through 10 weeks of wet weather in the spring that many are describing as “the worst planting season since ’81,” the ‘D’ word (drought) has now returned to many local conversations. After the wet spring destroyed first cutting hay quality, delayed (or eliminated) corn and bean planting, and caused pastures to suffer from much trampling, current ‘drought like’ conditions over much of Ohio are continuing to stymie plant growth. A friend from near Hicksville in northwestern Ohio told me that he recently harvested less than 300 pounds per acre from a second cutting of alfalfa. Just southeast of Columbus, we’ve received 1/2 inch of rainfall over the past 4+ weeks and haven’t mowed anything but buckhorn in our lawns during that time. While the Palmer Drought Index doesn’t yet show us in a drought, the fired out corn, cracks in the ground, and the weather we’ve had in recent weeks is certainly showing the symptoms of one.

The point is, it’s time to begin considering the alternatives for managing low quality, and low yields of feed stuffs. That includes grazed, harvested, and purchased feeds. Currently wheat midds, wet brewers grain, and even shelled corn are affordable alternatives as purchased feeds. All that being said, take a look now at your forage and feed resources, and give some thought to alternatives that will hold you until cooler temperatures and precipitation returns.

  • Wean spring born calves now – despite the dry weather market that is pushing grain prices, corn is still only about 4 cents a pound. Considering you can realize 4:1 feed conversions on young weaned calves, save the pasture for mamma. Mamma doesn’t need nearly as much feed when she’s not lactating! Besides, early weaned, vaccinated, bunk broke calves sell for a premium. It’s not too late to become involved in the Ohio FSBI sales, or other premium calf sales that are scheduled for later this year.
  • As an alternative to offering supplemental hay, feed the cows 2-3 pounds of whole corn per head per day – one pound of corn replaces about 2 pounds of hay, and, it’s a whole bunch easier to haul. Feed it on the dry ground under an electric fence wire and the cows and calves won’t waste any. If you have adequate bunk space, wheat midds might be an even better and cheaper alternative than corn. If you’re fall calving and short on forage, a little additional energy in the form of corn or midds is almost a must!
  • If your forage growth has stopped, pull the cows in and feed hay or silage. Overgrazed plants won’t recover very well when precipitation and cooler temperatures do return. Roots transport moisture and nutrients to growing plants. When plants are overgrazed, root growth stops and when root growth stops, leaf growth stops too. The result is no leaf to absorb dew or light rain, and no shading for the soil to retain the moisture that is present. During the 1999 drought, an Amanda (Ohio) area cattleman pulled his cows from the pastures in late July and August and opened a corn silage bag. His pastures recovered much more quickly that fall, and were significantly more productive than others’ in the County that were allowed to be grazed down to the soil. Manage for the long haul – don’t destroy a productive pasture just to survive the short term!
  • If you do still have forage that’s suitable for grazing, allow at least 4-5 inches of top growth to remain in the field. Also, extend rest periods now to 35-40 days for most forage species.
  • If a pasture must be overgrazed and abused, make sure it’s a mature, well established one. It will recover more quickly than younger seedings.
  • After the cows are dry and their nutrient requirements go down, plan to graze wheat stubble and the volunteer wheat that emerged with the showers you may have received. If you have a decent stand, you might even consider applying a little ammonium nitrate to these fields. Beyond that, begin planning to graze corn stalks after corn harvest.
  • Palpate and cull now before everyone else does. Moving culls now will not only save feed, but our dairymen typically cull more cows this time of year, and, we’re nearing the end of hamburger fry season – equaling less demand and more pressure on the cull cow market.
  • Apply ammonium nitrate to resting pastures – especially the fescue. See the articles that follow in this letter regarding stockpiling and ammonium nitrate.
  • When a little pasture top growth does return, don’t be impatient about grazing it. If you must, only top graze it lightly and move the cattle on.