Drought recovery forage options

  • Published: Monday, Aug. 15, 2022

GALENA, Mo. – “If there was ever a year to focus on stockpiled tall fescue, this is it,” says Tim Schnakenberg, University of Missouri Extension agronomy specialist in Galena.

The 2022 drought in southern Missouri has been significant, with extended periods of dry weather along with record high heat. This was preceded by a wet spring with abnormally cool temperatures. As a result, the fescue hay crop was mostly delayed this year, resulting in it being more mature with lower nutrient value, Schnakenberg says. There was little to no opportunity for a second cutting of dry hay. Pastures had ample opportunity to grow well this spring but were cut short by dry weather.

Even as a few rains have come in parts of the area, the effect of the drought and heat has continued, he says. Hay sellers have been hesitant to let go of hay because of uncertainty about the weather. Hay supplies from the southwest and west are nonexistent due to even worse drought situations there, which has tightened up the availability of hay on the market and helped to raise hay prices.

Shorter hay supplies this summer along with some producers having to begin feeding hay in drought has farmers and ranchers worried there may not be enough hay to get through the winter, Schnakenberg says.

That has many realizing the importance of fall grazing to offset the need for hay, he says. The cost of hay may exceed $150 per ton and is usually much lower in quality compared to lush pasture. “If you figure cost of feeding hay along with typical feeding losses associated with hay, it could potentially cost well over $3 per day to feed a 1,200-pound lactating cow,” he says.

In contrast, factoring fall pasture rent, the cost of putting about 40 pounds of nitrogen (even at today’s prices) on your strongest fescue pastures and closing gates until about December, the cost to feed during that time could be closer to $1.30 per day. As in any year, the success will depend on fall rains and no early freezes that could deteriorate the grass prematurely.

In university models, improving grass utilization rates makes this most profitable, Schnakenberg says. This involves raising rates up to 60% or better. This is best done with strip grazing using short grazing intervals allowing the maximum use of this prized forage. Those who stockpile routinely have the benefit of having top-quality feed that their cows are harvesting themselves rather than having to rely on a more labor-intensive, higher-priced and lower-quality feed source.

The recipe is simple for stockpiling, he says. Around mid-to-late August, set aside a few of your best stands of fescue by applying nitrogen on them and closing the gates. Leave these pastures alone for a few months during what are normally the best months for fescue growth. Fall growth may typically produce 1,500-3,000 pounds per acre of forage with good fertility. Schnakenberg has calculated that 1 to 2 acres of properly stockpiled fescue can meet the nutrient requirements of a 1,200-pound beef cow well into the winter months (50-100 days).

Even though fescue will respond to high rates of nitrogen in the fall, the high use can make endophyte problems worse on Kentucky 31 fields, Schnakenberg says. When to apply nitrogen may depend on the source of nitrogen available at your local dealers. “Most dealers are handling urea,” he says. “In this case, it is imperative to use a nitrogen stabilizer such as Agrotain, Anvol or a SuperU product. These materials will give you at least a 14-day protection from dry weather that could prevent significant nitrogen losses to the atmosphere.” If there is no chance of rain in the forecast, it may pay to delay application until there is a change in the weather. Regardless, it is generally best to have all nitrogen applied by early September. If you are using ammonium nitrate, there is little issue with losses that will occur, so it is best to proceed with the application. The fertilizer will wait for rain to activate it.

MU research has found that stockpiled fescue can potentially yield between 15 and 25 pounds of dry matter per pound of nitrogen applied. “In my calculations, using a gain in forage from nitrogen (20 pounds) along with current nitrogen costs to apply 40-50 units of nitrogen, the value of the additional feed from the practice of fertilizing could amount to a value of nearly $80 per ton of feed produced,” he says. “This is much cheaper than what it has been costing to buy hay to feed cows.”

Those who have warm-season grass fields such as Bermuda grass and crabgrass should not miss the opportunity to plant a cereal grain crop in those fields to take full advantage of a second growing season for cool-season forages, Schnakenberg says. The best recommended cereal crops for fall and winter grazing would include cereal rye, triticale or barley. These could be planted any time the current season forage growth is starting to slow down and there is potential for rain in the near future. This is typically in late September. An application of at least 40-60 pounds of nitrogen per acre is justified.

There are also many cornfields this year that got chopped or baled for silage that could create a great grazing opportunity. These forages could be used in these fields as well. Some might consider the use of a brassica such as turnips or radishes for fall grazing at this time. It is usually best to plant these in August so they can reach their full potential. If planting fall oats for either grazing or wrapped baleage in November, they do best if planted in August, Schnakenberg says.

Some have considered using brassicas or cereal crops in fescue stands to gain some emergency feed this fall, he says. It will be important to evaluate the stand of grass. If the stand is strong with fescue as the base forage, it is usually best to allocate those stands for stockpile alone. If the stand is weak and full of warm-season species (forage and weeds), you can more likely get a return on that investment of adding forage. Brassicas such as turnips do not respond well to competition. Cereal crops will compete better in strong stands, but getting a return on the investment may be harder.

Find more information on forages and drought at mizzou.us/DroughtResources.

Media Contact

Related Programs

Use Tab key to loop through the section below. Press Enter or Space to enter content for each tab button. Press Esc key to exit and to go to the next section at any time.

Extension resources