Spread too thin
Like many livestock producers facing record-high plant food prices, Lloyd Jones cut back on applications to his hay and pasture ground this past spring, choosing to fertilize only a small portion of the forage acres on his farm near Houston, Mo.
This summer, as drought conditions settled over southwest Missouri and temperatures reached triple digits, Jones started to regret that he hadn’t fertilized more. By mid-July, the cattleman was already feeding hay—the earliest he remembers—and worrying that he will have to reduce herd numbers because of limited forage supplies.
“Because prices were so high, we fertilized maybe 300 acres where we usually do 900 or 1,000, and we only put on a 4-1-2 (N-P-K ratio). Just a pat and a promise is all it was,” Jones said. “And here we are, going into the fall after hardly any rain this summer. It’s burned the grass up. We’re in a pickle, and I know we’re not the only ones.”
He’s right. In late July, nearly 75% of the Missouri was in some stage of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Several neighboring states were even worse, with more than 80% of Kansas and 100% of Arkansas under at least abnormally dry conditions.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson issued an executive order July 21 in response to the growing threat of serious drought. The measure calls upon the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to activate the Drought Assessment Committee and the drought impact teams.
“This situation for our cattle producers is dire from a forage perspective,” said Landry Jones, MFA Incorporated conservation grazing specialist. “A lot of folks didn’t fertilize at all this spring or at least didn’t replace all the nutrients that were needed. As a result, we’re seeing reduced hay yields and stressed pastures. Now is the time to make a game plan for what to do.”
While producers can’t control Mother Nature, they can be prepared to help pastures recover and boost forage growth this fall—provided that conditions improve. Those plans should include fertilization, Landry said, even with higher-than-normal prices.
“We can’t make up for what we’re missing now, but putting fertilizer down in the fall will replace what’s been removed and keep from mining nutrients,” he said. “We have to pay back what we’re taking out, like a savings account.”
Grass pastures, particularly those with a large percentage of fescue, will respond to nitrogen in the fall if moisture is available, Landry said. Phosphorous and potash are also important for getting pastures back into productivity. Soil fertility helps keep plants healthy over the winter, encourages early spring growth and enhances water-use efficiency and root development, which are important under dry conditions.
“Fescue produces one-third of its overall seasonal growth in the fall,” he said. “If you allow it to accumulate—what we call stockpiling—in pastures and hay fields until dormancy, the forage can be grazed through the winter.”
Landry recommends clipping, mowing or grazing fescue to 3 or 4 inches around mid-August, and then applying nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from mid-August to mid-September. Applying stabilized nitrogen such as SuperU will help protect this key nutrient from volatilization, denitrification and leaching.
At a minimum, Landry said producers should follow traditional soil test results to determine fertility rates. Even better, MFA’s Nutri-Track grid-sampling program can provide precise recommendations and allow variable-rate applications to put nutrients exactly where they are needed. Lloyd Jones and his farm manager, Don Evans, enrolled in Nutri-Track six years ago, and the technology has allowed them to reduce weed pressure, improve forage quality and increase stocking rates in their pastures.
“We’ve seen such a difference in the quality of grass and the carrying capacity,” Don said. “On the 240-acre farm I manage down at Elk Creek, we went from 48 cows and feeding hay all winter to 75 cows and feeding no hay. We were able to background enough grass to get by, and I’d say there’s been a 70% to 75% improvement in the number of weeds we’re fighting.”
“That precision thing is amazing,” Lloyd added. “It’s not just for the grain farmer. Cattle producers need to grow grass as efficiently as we can, too.”
While precision is fairly new for the lifelong farmer, Lloyd said fall fertilization is not. It’s been a standard practice on his farm.
“We’ve always done some fall fertilization because you can grow a lot of grass that time of year if you get the moisture and give it a little boost,” Lloyd said. “By getting that P and K on early, it has time to work, and the grass is ready to go in the spring.”
After fertilizing, producers should keep cattle off the stockpiled forage until they’re ready to graze, Landry said. In fescue-based pastures, the majority of growth will be complete by mid-October or first frost, providing high-quality forage with protein levels around 15% and total digestible nutrients in the low 60s.
“If you’re stockpiling properly, you’ve probably got more forage than cows need to maintain body condition,” Landry said. “One option for producers is to feed hay October through December, and then put cows on fescue from December to March or April. Those stockpiled pastures should still provide adequate nutrition through the winter months.”
Considering the cost of inputs for hay production, feeding stockpiled fescue can be a more cost-effective option, Landry said. On a dry matter basis, with adequate moisture, he estimates about 90 cents per head per day to stockpile versus $2.25 to $2.40 for purchased hay.
“You see the cost for fertilizer and think you can’t spend $80 an acre for grass,” Landry said. “When you look at the economics of hay, it’s better to stockpile.”
Dividing pastures into smaller paddocks and using rotational grazing or strip grazing will make better use of the forage, he added. With this method, cattle will only waste 15% to 20% of the standing forage. If turned out on the entire pasture, 50% to 70% can be wasted. Plus, the herd will graze in more uniform pattern and distribute manure more evenly, which helps soil fertility by recycling the nutrients they’re consuming.
“The waxy cuticle of the fescue leaves protects the plant, which is why it survives over the winter,” Landry explained. “When the cattle walk on it, they break the cuticle and forage quality declines. Providing a smaller section to graze and moving the herd every one to three days keeps them from damaging and overgrazing any one site and gives the other areas time to recover.”
It’s a practice that Lloyd Jones uses on his farm, where pastures are divided into 18- to 20-acre paddocks for rotational grazing. All the best management practices in the world, however, cannot make it rain. The veteran cattleman said he’s holding out hope that the drought will abate in time for his pastures to recover from the summer stress and give him an opportunity to replenish much-needed nutrients for good growth this fall.
“If we get some moisture, the fertilizer truck is going to be running,” Lloyd said. “We have to do something since we missed the spring—N, P, K, all of it. That’s my plan. But I don’t know what the plan upstairs is. If we don’t get rain, we won’t be able to do anything but sell cows.”
For more information on creating a forage fertility program on your farm, visit with the agronomy and livestock professionals at your local MFA or AGChoice affiliate.
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