Tips to manage pastures during drought

Droughts are an act of Mother Nature and cannot be controlled. However, proper management can help maintain pastureland during a period of drought by following this advice:

Key Points

• Management tips are offered for pastureland affected by drought.

• Applying fertilizer after drought may help the recovery of pastures.

• Planting cool-season annuals can extend the grazing season.

Minimize overgrazing. Overgrazing livestock on pasture during drought periods can weaken the stressed plants causing shortened root depth and further lengthening the recovery period even after rain comes. Therefore, it’s wise not to overgraze with 65% to 75% carrying capacity using a rotational grazing practice. This will help forage plants recover from drought stress and regrow faster next spring.

Use sacrifice paddock(s). Instead of grazing every pasture, set aside a sacrifice paddock where hay is fed to minimize severe drought damage. This sacrifice paddock should be the old, low-yielding and low-quality pasture that needs to be renovated or reseeded.

Watch U.S. drought outlook. Keeping track of the forecast may help in planning for the next move when managing pasturelands. The U.S Drought Monitor is a useful tool to get an idea about current drought conditions and the impact it may have in the short and long term.

Apply fertilizer. Right after drought-ending rain, applying nitrogen fertilizer (50 pounds N per acre) can help the drought-stressed hay fields and pasture to recover faster and store more root reserves for the long winter. If the soil of drought-stressed hay and pasture is low in phosphorus and potassium, it’s important to fertilize with these nutrients to ensure the crop survives through the winter. Adjusting phosphorus also helps lower the risk of grass tetany by increasing magnesium uptake in the spring.

Plant cool-season annual forages. Drought-stressed pasture may not produce enough forage for the rest of the growing season until winter starts. Thus, some producers plant cool-season annuals such as forage brassicas (turnip, forage rape or kale) and small grains (rye, wheat or oats) to extend the grazing season. Although forage brassicas are not drought-tolerant crops, they can be planted in late summer. Forage brassicas are suitable for cattle, sheep and goats, but are not recommended for horses.

Control stubble height. To restore healthy forage stands, it is important not to graze or harvest drought-stressed forage plants too short in the fall. It is desirable to leave 6 inches of stubble before entering winter. This also helps to catch moisture-replenishing snow and for regrowth in early spring.

For more information, visit To contact an expert in your area, visit, or call 888-678-3464.

Min writes for Michigan State University Extension.


This article published in the August, 2012 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.