By John Jennings
Forage problems resulting from the 2012 drought will extend into 2013.
Assessing the drought damage should force questions about the forage management on the farm. The answers will be unique for each farm, but begin with a soil test for all pastures.
There are at least four options to help direct your forage improvement efforts.
Success with the "do nothing and let the surviving forages regrow" will depend on the severity of the drought damage, the existing forage species and the producer's willingness to nurse the field back to health. Tall fescue is resilient; however, armyworms in spring ruined seed production in many fields and prolonged grazing during the drought reduced populations further. Clovers died out in a majority of fields. Bermuda grass fields were severely damaged in many areas. Any fields left "as-is" to regenerate on their own will need to be managed like new seedlings. This means good management of fertility, weed control and the use of deferred grazing.
Thicken pastures with the same species
Adding seed to fill in thin spots can prove beneficial, but should be managed like a new seedling. Remove any forage or weed canopy before planting. Fall rains stimulated a lot of weedy grass growth. It's best to use a full seeding rate. Fescue and orchard grass should have been planted in the fall. Plant rye or wheat in the spring with either of those forages. Don't plant annual ryegrass with fescue and orchard grass as it will crowd out most other forages. Plant Bermuda grass in late spring.
Thin pastures provide a great opportunity to inter seed legumes. Legumes improve forage quality, reduce N fertilizer need and help fill in thin grass pastures. Clover and other legumes can be overseeded into grass pastures and hayfields during fall or late winter. Fall or late-winter seeding is recommended for fescue pastures. Fall seeding is recommended for Bermuda grass and other warm-season grass pastures. White and red clovers are popular perennial clovers. Arrowleaf and crimson clovers are popular annual clovers.
Renovate damaged pastures, covert to other forages
Converting damaged fields to different forage species can help extend the grazing season, improve forage quality or reduce fescue toxicity. Pick a new forage based on seasonal forage need. For example, warm-season grasses should be considered in fescue-dominant systems. Cool-season grasses should be selected in Bermuda grass or bahiagrass-dominant systems.
Diversity of seasonal forage species on the farm improves forage production throughout the year. Both cool- and warm-season forages should be included. In north Arkansas the ratio to cool-season to warm-season forage should be about two-thirds cool season and one-third warm-season forages. Inverse this ratio in south Arkansas due to the longer growing season. At the simplest level, a perennial cool-season grass like fescue and a perennial warm-season grass like Bermuda grass should serve as the forage base. Adding more species makes the forage program more stable and dependable over time.
John Jennings is Extension forage specialist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
Farmers weathering 2012 are learning plenty about everything from crop insurance to seed genetics as parched conditions reshape farm business across the country. Consider our 5-part approach to moving ahead after the toughest drought since the 1930s.