We experienced unprecedented severe drought this year, particularly during May through mid-August in most places in Michigan. We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can manage drought-stressed hay fields and pastures to minimize further damage in the coming years. 

Due to forage shortages, many farmers may want to harvest whatever is available in the fields to reduce buying hay externally. This may result in further damage to forage plants. Following are some fall management tips for drought-stressed hay fields:

  1. Allow enough time to store food reserves. Since most drought-stressed forage plants can be weak due to low root reserves, they may need some time to store their food reserves in the roots to overwinter and regrow next spring.
  2. Cutting time. It is believed that most hay fields may be harvested two to three times this year, depending on the region. It might be safer to harvest the last cutting of drought-stressed forages when those forage plants are in the stage of maturity such as after heading or blooming to store enough food reserves in the roots rather than in vegetative stages. If newly seeded alfalfa or grasses this spring had severe drought, it’s not recommended to mow those forage stands in the fall.
  3. Cutting height. Since snow cover varies region to region in Michigan (more snow cover in northern Michigan and the U.P. than lower Michigan), it’s safer to leave 4 to 6 inches of stubble. Cutting too short may make it hard to trap the snow, especially in lower Michigan, and snow cover is very important, particularly for alfalfa. If the forage plants are about 10 inches tall, it may not be cost-effective to machine harvest.
  4. Fertilization. Fall is a good time to soil test and fertilize with potassium (K) and phosphorus (P). This will help drought-stressed forage stands to overwinter and regrow next spring. Both P and K involve many physiological processes, in particular carbohydrate synthesis which is related to root reserves and winter survival.