Tips for managing drought-stressed forages

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If your hay fields and pastures were in poor condition going into the winter, you have some options. Steve Barnhart, Extension forage agronomist with Iowa State University, shares the following management options and practices that you may want to consider this spring:

Help recovering hay and pasture stands "catch up" and regain vigor this spring. If fall recovery was not favorable, or you cut or grazed late in the season in 2012, the recovering forage plant may still be under some physiological stress. Hay and pasture plants will benefit from allowing a bit more recovery and growing time this spring before they are cut or grazed. For best "recovery management" delay the first cut of alfalfa stands until they reach early- to mid-bloom. For pastures, allow 3 to 4 inches of growth in the spring before livestock turnout. Also consider reducing stocking rates on pastures until growing conditions improve.

Fertilize pastures, but only if needed. From an economic and productivity standpoint, apply phosphorus (P) and/or potassium (K) only if they are needed. The need for pasture P and K are best determined by soil testing. Soil testing and needed applications can still be done in the spring. Applying nitrogen in early spring is a common practice on many farms. Grass-based pastures usually respond quickly to added nitrogen. However, consider whether you can actually use all of the extra pasture growth, or whether it will be more economical to apply a modest early spring application (30 or 40 lbs/acre), and assess the precipitation probabilities for the remainder of spring and summer. You can apply an additional 30 or 40 lbs/acre in mid-spring, and again possibly in late-summer to make your seasonal nitrogen use more efficient.

Consider frost seeding or interseeding drought-thinned pastures or hay fields. Frost seeding is the broadcasting of legumes or additional grass seed in late winter when the last few weeks of night-freeze and daytime-thaw aid in seed coverage. Interseeding is using a drill to no-till plant legumes or forage grasses into an existing sod. Spring interseeding dates are mid-March through late-April.

Evaluate forage resources and inventories to determine if supplemental forage is needed. Consider the extra forage opportunities you may have such as grazing or harvest of fall-planted cereal grain cover crops, and cereal grain companion crops planted with new hay and pasture seedings. Some producers will likely allocate a portion of their intended row crop acres to the production of summer annual forages, to be used as grazed or harvested supplemental forage. The most commonly used summer annuals are Sudangrass, sorghum-Sudangrass hybrids, and the various grasses classified as "millets" (foxtail millet, Japanese millet, and hybrid pearl millet.) These crops are generally planted in mid- to late May, and with good weather and management, can provide 1 to 3 harvests or grazings during the growing season.

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