Pasture and rangelands across the Southwest have taken one beating after another over the last three plus years, and the assault continues as drought across much of the region moves into its fourth year.
And things might not get much better for several more years, according to climatologists who imply that the current drought cycle could persist through 2020. That puts a heavy burden on livestock producers who depend on forages to raise beef cattle efficiently.
“But forewarned is forearmed,” says Larry Redmon, Texas AgriLife forage specialist. Redmon, speaking at a recent crops conference in Altus, Okla., said the past few years have been beyond bad.
“The drought of 2011 was the worst on record, going back to the late 1800s,” he said. And the region remains abnormally dry. Back in January, drought monitors showed 70 percent of Texas in a drought status ranging from abnormally dry to extreme drought. That percentage has declined a bit since then, but latest reports indicate 65 percent or more of the state remains in drought status.
Oklahoma, Redmon said, also hovers close to that 65 percent drought status.
Forage production has suffered during this prolonged drought, and cattle herds have been thinned significantly as producers spread fewer cattle across their parched acreage.
“Forage needs water,” Redmon said. “Top growth feeds the roots that create more top growth. The No. 1 limiting factor for forage production is water. Without water, nothing else we do matters in forage production or pasture recovery.”
Still, forage production demands management, in anticipation of rainfall returning. The amount of nutrients needed, he said, depends in part on the type of forage. “Bermudagrass, for instance, demands a lot of fertilizer. If producers are cutting hay, Bermuda is a good choice and one to stay with.”
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It’s been a good option for decades, dating back to 1943 when the first hybrid was produced in Tifton, Ga. Coastal Bermudagrass became a standard for warm-season forage. That hybrid was followed by a by-product of World War II, stockpiles of ammonium nitrate (used in weapons) that was a great source of nitrogen fertilizer. “And it was inexpensive.”
Not so much now. “Fertilizer is no longer cheap,” Redmon said. “The global economy includes China, India and Brazil developing middle classes.” That means a bigger demand for food and the need for more fertilizer. “So prices go up. Fertilizer is high and will stay high unless we see another economic collapse.”
That may convince forage producers to take a closer look at Bermudagrass. “Should they keep it or look for something else?” Redmon asks.
Fertilizer efficiency will be a key, he added. “Check the oil. A soil test is a dipstick for the soil. Make certain it has sufficient quantity of nutrients. Like a dipstick, soil tests tell us how much to add.”
He said producers should fertilize before a rain. “But without that soil test they may over-apply an expensive nutrient or under-apply a needed nutrient. To produce one ton of Bermuda forage, we need 100 pounds of nitrogen and 9 inches of water. Without the nitrogen, we would need 18 inches of water.
“For forage, Bermuda may not be economical. Bahiagrass, kleingrass, old world bluestem and other native forages could be better options. Some of these may use little or no fertilizer. Old world bluestem is a good option.”
Redmon said a transition to native forage will require a reduced stocking rate. “Native forages may not be less expensive to establish, and they may actually cost more but can be more economical to graze and can provide enhanced wildlife habitat.”
Protecting forage stands, he added, is critical. And the factors producers need to guard against include weeds, insect pests, soil loss, and livestock.
“Weed infestations inhibit photosynthesis,” Redmon said. “Forage requires sunlight. Weeds also reduce forage recovery potential because of competition for sunlight, moisture and nutrients.”
Producers control weeds with herbicides or by mowing. “With heavy infestations, we need to use herbicides,” he said. Herbicide application is about $3.67 per acre cheaper than mowing. “Actual herbicide cost, depending on products used, will approach $11 or $12 per acre. Mowing costs more.”
Good reasons to mow
There are good reasons to mow, however, other than to control weeds. Mowing to manage excess growth, for instance, can be beneficial.
“Manage winter forage production,” Redmon said. Allowing winter forage to get out of hand also inhibits photosynthesis and may slow emergence of warm-season grasses. “It can actually destroy warm-season grass stands.”
He recommends removing winter forage “before green-up. When nighttime temperatures reach 60 degrees, get the cool-season forages out.
“Protect forage against grasshoppers,” Redmon says. “Grasshoppers can destroy a forage stand.” Products such as Dimilin, malathion, Mustang, and Tombstone are effective options. “Look for grazing restrictions on the label.” He also likes a relatively new insecticide, Prevathon, which has no grazing restrictions. It also has no signal words (danger, caution, etc.). “It is safe and provides good control,” he said.
It also offers residual activity. Other insecticides will not protect forages against grasshoppers that fly in from neighboring properties. Prevathon is effective up to eight weeks after application, at an 8 ounce rate, Redmon said.
It’s also effective on fall armyworm. “Fall armyworm may hit in the summer or in the fall. When you see one, think about spraying.”
Redmon said forage producers should be aware of a new pest from Asia, the stem maggot. “We’ve seen it as far north as Comanche, Texas (North Central Texas). Spray applications have to target the fly, not the maggot in the stem.”
Redmon said the maggot goes through multiple generations a year.
He added that livestock producers also have to protect against their own instincts at times. “It’s important to remain destocked during drought,” he said. “Maintain reduced stocking rates or consider further reductions.
“Drought management,” he added, “should be part of an overall production strategy.”
Two philosophies vie for attention in forage management. “The first is: Use up everything Mother Nature can provide, which means no rootzone and no recovery. The second is:
Manage the forage. Control what happens in the pasture—fertility, weeds, insects, livestock. Protect the forage.”
Option No. 1 means leaving bare ground and subjecting the land to erosion when rains come. “With grass in the pasture, the water stays in place. The pasture is a sponge and soaks up the moisture.”
Ground cover protects the topsoil. That’s a big deal, Redmon said. “It takes up to 1,000 years to create one inch of topsoil.”
The damage does not stop in the pasture. “When we lose topsoil we also lose nutrients that may move into a creek. We also move organic matter, pesticides and bacteria, and that will concern EPA and state agencies.”
He said water may be considered impaired by bacteria and with that designation “people in the watershed must clean it up. At first, that will be voluntary but then it may be regulated.”
The process, Redmon said, is simple. “Protect forage. Protect it from weeds, insects, water, and cattle. Protect soil and water quality.”