Going Forward with Drought-Stricken Pastures

Given two years of inclement weather, cattle producers are evaluating pastures in order to best prepare them for the 2021 grazing season. ISU Extension and Outreach Beef Specialist Beth Doran offers guidance moving forward as the spring arrives.
Continue to monitor drought conditions.In Northwest Iowa, the outlook is for persisting drought from February 18 through May 31. The current map (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap.aspx) shows drought conditions ranging from moderate to extreme drought. It is time to begin planning what strategies to take with your pastures.
Check the forage stand for plant vigor and density.If drought conditions improve, consider frost seeding red clover or interseeding drought-tolerant species. If the plant stand is poor, it may be necessary to establish a new seeding. But, for any method of seeding to be successful, there must be sufficient and continuous moisture.
Consider fertilization to help boost pasture grasses.Grasses respond well to 60-100 pounds of Nitrogen (N) per acre, as long as soil pH, phosphorus and potassium levels are adequate. If drought conditions persist, consider applying half of the N in early spring and the other half in August if moisture levels improve.
Delay turnout until the forage is 6-8 inches tall. If forage plants are grazed too soon, this will weaken existing plants, delay future growth, and increase weed competition.
Think about weed control. There are basically two ways to accomplish this – provide competition with desirable species of pasture plants or use chemical or mechanical control. 
Avoid overgrazing.Move the cattle to a new pasture when the forage height is no shorter than 4 inches and allow a minimum of 21 days for cool-season grasses to regrow in late spring/early summer. In mid-to-late summer, the number of days needed for regrowth may expand to 6 weeks or more.
Consider planting summer annuals to spare pastures. ISU Extension’s publication, “Selecting Forage Species,” lists the characteristics (including drought tolerance) of various species. It is available for free download at https://store.extension.iastate.edu/product/5367.
Realize there is no magic bullet.Regardless of what is considered or planned, success ultimately hinges on timely rains and growing degree days. If drought continues, forage insurance may be warranted and can be purchased from a crop insurance agent.
For more information about forages, check out the Iowa Beef Center at http://www.iowabeefcenter.org/forage.html.

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