Fall and Winter Grazing Options Following a Drought

A dairy cow at the Foremost Dairy Research Farm grazes on fescue pasture with a mix of legumes.
( University of Missouri Extension )

The 2018 extended drought in southwest Missouri has left pastures and hayfields with few forages left at the end of summer according to Tim Schnakenberg, field specialist in agronomy with University of Missouri Extension.

"Livestock producers are scrambling to offset the cost of high priced hay by ensuring that forages are growing for fall and winter grazing," said Schnakenberg.

According to Schnakenberg, under normal circumstances, the cost of feeding a cow per day during the winter months using hay is 2-3 times more than if the same cow was dependent on fall and winter pasture.

"Considering the cost of hay today, it may be more like 6-9 times the cost, which gives even more credence to the necessity of efficient fall grazing practices," said Schnakenberg.

Dependent on the conditions of their fields, producers could consider a few options.

First, consider stockpiling your better tall fescue and Bermudagrass fields.

"This is our cheapest and easiest option for fall and winter grazing. It's estimated that 80 to 90 percent of livestock producers should primarily focus on this option if fescue stands are strong," said Schnakenberg.

It is easy to look at a droughty fescue field and think there is no hope for regrowth.

"We know from past droughts, that there is lots of hope for fescue to return in the fall. First, make sure there is some green in the base of the crown. If the plants are still alive and there is a 75% stand of fescue left, the best approach will be to stockpile it," said Schnakenberg.

Rotational grazing will nearly double utilization. Strip grazing or multiple paddocks work exceptionally well for rationing out stockpiled fescue.

Second, pastures with poor stands of fescue or with no fall growth potential may be planted with winter annuals according to Schnakenberg.

"Planting winter annuals into a strong fescue stand is counter-productive and may not be cost-effective," said Schnakenberg. "August is the month to evaluate stands of fescue. Many fields are full of grassy and broadleaf weeds like foxtail, purpletop, broomsedge and ragweed. If there is little tall fescue left, a plan should be developed for either providing temporary forage or a long-term plan for reestablishment."

Winter annual forage options for fall and winter grazing include cereal rye, triticale, wheat, oats, barley, turnips, kale and radishes. Each one has its benefits and challenges.

Or third, complete renovation of worn-out fields is also an option.

"Some fields may be due for complete renovation. Think of the long-term goals and plan for success," said Schnakenberg.

Fields that will be killed to renovate using winter annuals would be prime candidates to establish warm season grasses next spring or novel endophyte fescue the following late summer/fall.

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