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Dave Forgey
Dave Forgey
[Photo by T.L. Gettings]
Managing Drought
Maintain adequate residue so pastures can recover quickly when the rains return.

By Dave Forgey, Logansport, Ind., forgraze@carlnet.org

During the eight years from '88 to '95, we faced four years of drought. '88 was devastating and forced us to buy $150,000 of forage and grain for our conventional dry-lot herd. When dry weather hit again in '91 we were determined not to make the same mistakes. It was our first year of intensive grazing, and we quickly realized that pastures with cover on them continued to grow slowly and recovered quickly when the dry weather subsided in late August.

We realized that year that residue cover made a difference in how quickly pastures recovered after dry periods. Fortunately '92, '93 and '94 had adequate moisture and gave us time to learn many of the management techniques necessary for a good grazing system, and allowed our pasture to become more densely populated with forages.

Through the '94-'95 winter we noticed that moisture levels were low again. It was very nice for winter feeding on paddocks. Because of the lack of moisture, very little pugging occurred, and we had sufficient spring rain to get pastures growing early. But it became evident in mid-May that moisture was still short, and temperatures rose to the upper 90's F causing bare ground to dry out rapidly.

Our pastures had become much more dense in the past three years, and we noticed that these pastures were recovering better than hay fields we had harvested. We immediately stopped harvesting excess pasture, slowed down our rotations and left more residue. Rotations which would normally be 20 days in May and early June were stretched to 35 to 40 days. This gave each paddock longer to recover and allowed for more residue to cover the soil. Laying a thermometer on the soil under the pasture growth usually showed a 15 F difference from ambient readings.

From reading many New Zealand and Australian articles, we realized that if you left plenty of leaf surface and kept soil temperatures cool, pastures would respond rapidly when moisture arrived. Graziers "down-under" always say to take care of the grass at all costs, because it takes much longer to restore overgrazed pastures than it does to put condition back on the livestock.

We were able to manage residue by giving the cows many small breaks of feed each day. As pasture would reach the 4- to 5-inch residue stage we would give the cows another break of new feed. This kept the cows from overgrazing residue. But it was necessary to anticipate the amounts cows would eat and not give too large a break, or they would waste additional high-quality pasture. It was necessary for us to supplement some stored forages in late July, but a few showers quickly restored pasture and allowed grazing until mid-October. That winter we limited our winter feeding area to about 20 acres and allowed the balance of the pasture to rest.

The '95-'96 winter was again very dry, and the winter cold held on until mid-April. Pastures were slow to begin spring growth for both of these reasons. We used a no-till drill to seed additional legumes in early March due to the dry weather. By late April, we were receiving some moisture. New seedlings sprouted and pasture got off to a slow start. In May and early June we were blessed with frequent light showers but few significant rains.

By late July, we were again at the point of supplemental feeding when a 4.5-inch steady rain saved the month. Within one week we were again in a spring-like flush of pasture. We continued our slow movement through pastures, but we went 6 weeks without any more moisture. In early September we had light showers and again we saw a rapid recovery of pastures to allow fall grazing. By early October we decided to allow pastures a fall rest and began winter feeding.

I was gone most of the month of November on a volunteer mission to Ukraine and was amazed when I returned at Thanksgiving. Adequate amounts of rainfall -- even though the weather had been quite cold -- had stimulated late fall regrowth, and we had large amounts of fall-saved pasture. I believe that this kind of fall growth is necessary for good spring growth, and that we must learn to conserve pastures when they are stressed by heat and dry weather if we are to keep them strong for the next season. The old adage of conserving today to have something tomorrow becomes very important in good pasture management.

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