Drought and Pasture Management 2023 with OSU’s Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson, Oklahoma State University Extension Beef Cattle Breeding Specialist, offers herd health advice as part of the weekly series known as the “Cow Calf Corner” published electronically by Dr. Peel, Mark Johnson, and Paul Beck. Today, Johnson is talking about managing your operation in drought.

At the conclusion of a winter of feeding cows, this time of year we, (and the cows), look forward to green grass.  Parts of Oklahoma have received some much needed rain over the past few weeks and yet a majority of the state remains in various degrees of drought.  Moisture over the next few weeks will be critical to help warm season grass pastures (native or improved grasses) get off and running for the summer.  Regardless of your current moisture situation, proper range management is critical now and over the next couple of months.  We need to resist the temptation caused by green grass, hold off on grazing pressure and manage our grazing eco-system of soil, plants and cattle for optimum, long-term benefit.  Following is our management plan for the OSU Purebred Beef warm season grass pastures this spring. 

Apply Herbicides for Weed Control Early

Drought stress (past and present) makes the timely application of herbicides critical in order to give the desired plant species the competitive advantage.  Proper timing of herbicide application depends on the product used.  Read product labels to determine proper timing.  For example, post emergent herbicides like 2-4-D works on actively growing weeds.  Accordingly, broadleaf weeds need to be growing before we can get effective weed control.  That being said, apply herbicide for weed control before the weeds have the opportunity to scavenge moisture and soil nutrients.

Delay Grazing Until……

After or during drought stress, the most palatable plant species are most negatively impacted by grazing pressure.  Under continuous grazing pressure, cattle of all ages will graze the most palatable plants and their lush regrowth repeatedly.  For example, desirable forage plants will be grazed while rank weeds will grow to maturity untouched.  The same holds true among desirable plants, for example crab grass is more palatable than switch grass.  What do we do to give desirable grasses the competitive advantage this spring?  Resist the temptation of the first signs of green grass and delay grazing as long as your supply of hay and/or supplemental feed permits.  Depending on the type of plants in your forage base (native grasses or improved grasses like Bermuda), I suggest waiting until grasses are four to eight inches tall before turning out to graze.  This gives the plants a healthy start and will provide cover to bare soils.  Permit your desired plant species to get ahead of grazing pressure this spring.

Apply Fertilizer Early/Split Applications

This applies to improved grasses like Bermuda.  When considering getting grasses off to the competitive advantage this spring, we want nitrogen fertilizer applied at the optimum time before rain or proper growing conditions happen.  If we are dealing with Bermudagrass pastures which include cool season grasses, an extra level of management is needed to determine the best time to apply nitrogen in harmony with proper growing conditions for the Bermudagrass plants.  Furthermore, with the uncertainty of moisture, it is best to split the amount of nitrogen fertilizer into at least two applications.  For example, if we typically fertilize our Bermuda grass pastures with 100 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre in early May, this year we plan to apply 50 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre by the beginning of May.  We will monitor growing conditions and rainfall to determine if/when to apply more nitrogen.

In summary, our goal is to permit our drought stressed, desired grasses some time to heal, grow and get ahead of the weeds and grazing pressure this spring.  If we fail to accomplish this goal, the consequence is a weakened stand of desirable grasses, more weeds and more undesirable plant species.  Plan ahead now to manage your grazing system for the long-term benefit of your beef operation.

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