– Stan Smith, PA, Fairfield County OSU Extension
In the words of old Yankee Hall of Famer number 8, Yogi Berra, it sure seems like deja vu all over again. Much of Ohio and many parts of the Midwest saw it in 1999, and 2002, and again in 2005 . . . significantly below normal precipitation in spring and early summer which set the stage for below normal production of hay and pasture.
After experiencing a very wet fall and winter, this year’s 3 inch below normal precipitation in May was preceded by an extraordinary freeze in early April. All that adds up to what many are describing as only 30-60% of normal spring forage production.
The most recent USDA Ohio Crop Weather Highlights shows nearly three fourths of our top soils are short or very short on moisture. At the same time, at least 50% of our hay and pastures were rated as only “fair” or worse. Despite a tenth inch to as much as an inch of rain throughout Ohio during last weekend, it’s unlikely we’ll see compensatory forage growth that replaces what’s already been lost. While the NOAA Drought Information Center is calling only the southern half of Ohio “Abnormally Dry” the recent above normal temperatures combined with the lack of timely precipitation has certainly taken it’s toll on the cool season grasses and even the alfalfa. Adding insult to injury are feedgrain prices that have attracted some of our hay acres into corn production. But then Yogi probably said it best when he suggested “it ain’t over til it’s over” . . . and in this case, that means there’s still time to MANAGE!!
All that being said, it’s apparent that it’s time to be considering the alternatives for managing around these poor producing pasture and hay fields. Certainly it’s never too early in the summer to take a look at your forage and feed resources, and give some thought to alternatives that will hold you until cooler temperatures and timely rains return to Ohio. Consider some of these alternatives which will help best utilize limited resources:
- Wean early spring born calves soon if not already. Review the thoughts later in this letter by Dr. Turner on the subject of “early weaning.”
- People have mentioned that feeding corn is too expensive. Is it? Do the math. For easy figuring assume that one pound of corn replaces about 2 pounds of hay nutritionally. Plus, it’s a whole bunch easier and less expensive per ton to haul. As an alternative to offering what will likely be “expensive” supplemental hay at a time now when cows could easily utilize a little more energy, feed the cows 2-3 pounds of whole corn per head per day. 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 alternative that’s less expensive than corn.
- If you do still have forage that’s suitable for grazing, allow at least 2-3 inches of top growth to remain in the field. Also, extend rest periods now to 35 or more days for most forage species.
- If your forage growth has stopped, pull the cows off pasture 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. See Jeff McCutcheon’s thoughts on this below. During the 1999 drought, an Amanda (Ohio) area cattleman pulled his cows from the pastures in late July and August and fed them from a corn silage bag. His rested 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 a pasture must be overgrazed and abused, make sure it’s a mature, well established one. It will recover more quickly than younger seedings.
- Wheat harvest is upon us and this will provide vacant fields that you might want to consider planting oats on. During the extremely dry summer of 2002, you will recall the Wolfingers from Fairfield County planted oats into a harvested wheat field in early August and then strip grazed from it about 5 tons of high quality dry matter per acre beginning in November, and continuing into March. Fields of oats without fence have been mechanically harvested in the fall, consistently yielding 5+/- tons.
- After the calves are weaned and the cow’s nutrient requirements are reduced, if you don’t get your harvested wheat fields seeded to oats, you may plan to graze wheat stubble and the volunteer wheat that emerges when some showers do occur. If you have a decent stand of volunteer forage, you might even consider applying a little ammonium nitrate to these fields to enhance growth. 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 prices are also pretty good . . . cull now, beat the rush.
- Assuming it will rain again, plan to apply ammonium nitrate to resting pastures – especially the fescue – sometime around August 1.
- When a little pasture top growth does return, don’t be impatient about grazing it. If you must graze on it, only top graze it lightly and move the cattle on.
Beginning below we are committing this week’s letter to Forage Focus as we explore some of the alternatives mentioned above in more detail. If dry weather persists, look for more management suggestions in coming weeks. Also in the mean time, visit the OSU Extension “Drought Management” pages for more detail on managing in times of expensive and limited feed supply.