During a drought - like what is currently affecting plenty of the East Texas land for sale and many farms and ranches - little can be done to increase foraging pasture growth. However, proper management can minimize the impact of drought on your operation when it does occur. Careful early intervention can minimize long-term stand damage and help maintain forage yields when rains do come.
If pastures are managed properly during times of low moisture, drought effects will be less severe and pastures will rebound faster from precipitation. And remember: Management practices that minimize pasture damage during droughts are the same as those for maintaining healthy pastures in a normal year.
"Proper management in advance can minimize the impact of drought on your operation."
Reduce stocking rates if you believe forage supply will be limited. Cull cows that are open, in poor condition or have poor disposition. A veterinarian can palpate cows for pregnancy and check for health problems that warrant elimination from the herd. Cows that aren't pregnant are difficult to justify feeding expensive hay. Moving cattle to leased grazing lands with available forage is an option as well, to reduce stress on pastures without selling off a portion of the herd.
Another option is early weaning and sale of calves. This reduces stocking pressure, as well as the herd's overall nutrient requirement, by 20 percent, because it stops the heavy nutrient demand of lactation. The longer decisions to decrease stock are delayed, the sooner foraging supplies will be exhausted, and financial losses will be accelerated.
Lack of moisture suppresses plant growth and root development. Allow 6 to 8 inches of new growth before allowing livestock to graze. A healthy pasture will have between 3 and 6 inches of stubble. In severe drought, pastures may not reach this height, and should be deferred until time of dormancy (when nights are 55 degrees Fahrenheit for warm-season pastures) and then grazed to 3 or 4 inches.
Pastures with little or no green growth are living off their roots, whose mass will have declined substantially. Replace these roots or bare areas will increase and invading weeds will prevail. In addition, overgrazing removes the buds needed for re-growth. If insufficient stubble remains, this reduces water capture and infiltration, so when it rains again, less water enters the soil stores to facilitate plant growth. Stocking rates must be reduced on all types of forage. Country living ranchers should also reduce or stop fertilizer input during periods of reduced precipitation, and consider rotational stocking to increase harvest efficiency, forage utilization and herd-management flexibility.
Do not apply herbicides during a drought. Plants' natural responses to drought will prevent adequate entry of herbicidal substances into plants, resulting in high-cost application with reduced weed control.
In Part II of this series, we'll discuss ways to prepare for future droughts.
Dr. Vanessa Corriher-Olson is Associate Professor and Forage Extension Specialist at the Texas A&M Agrilife Research and Extension Center.