A very cool and wet August is just the latest turn in a rather unusual year for forage production in Oklahoma. Waves of wet and dry and warm and cool weather have made it difficult to assess forage conditions across the state. According to the Oklahoma Mesonet, every climate region of the state has received above average rainfall the past 30 days, ranging from 139 percent of normal in the Panhandle to 268 percent of normal in the Southeast. However, the latest Drought monitor shows 70 percent of Oklahoma with abnormally dry conditions or worse, including 26 percent in severe drought or worse (D2-D4).
To be fair, the Mesonet totals include rain this past week which will not be reflected in the Drought Monitor until the new report is issued later this week, when drought improvement is anticipated. Nor does this in any way suggest that the Drought Monitor is anything less than a valuable tool. However, it does highlight the fact that the Drought Monitor captures longer term average conditions and is limited in the ability to adjust quickly to highly variable short term weather changes. It is clear that no single or simple weather measure is adequate to assess forage conditions this year, not only in Oklahoma, but across much of the country as well.
The latest Crop progress report shows U.S. average pasture and range conditions at 30 percent poor to very poor, up from 22 percent one year ago. In Oklahoma, 23 percent of pastures are currently rated poor to very poor, compared to seven percent this time last year. Regional pasture conditions have higher percentages of poor to very poor conditions in the West, Southern Plains, Corn Belt, Northeast and Southeast. Only the Great Plains region (CO, KS, MT, NE, ND, SD and WY) has a smaller percentage of poor and very poor pasture conditions this year. The Drought Monitor shows that 20.02 percent of the U.S. is currently in severe drought or worse (D2-D4). This compares to 5.33 percent at this time last year.
The hay situation is perhaps even more difficult to assess this year. The 2018 hay crop year started with U.S. total May 1 hay stocks down 36 percent year over year, and at the lowest level since 2013. Variable summer weather conditions have impacted both quantity and quality of hay production. The latest Livestock Marketing Information Center projections suggest a slight overall increase in hay production of 0.5 percent year over year; with increased alfalfa hay production more than offsetting decreased other hay production. However, the lower beginning stocks mean that overall hay supplies will be tighter and higher prices are expected for all types of hay.
Anecdotal indications are that forage and hay production is variable but probably lower for much of Oklahoma. The start and stop nature of forage growth this season has contributed to Prussic acid and nitrate toxicity in sorghum forages and Johnson grass, with several cattle deaths reported. Producers must continue to monitor and manage grazing and hay production to minimize quality and toxicity problems. August moisture may provide an opportunity to boost forage supplies for fall and winter. Current conditions may facilitate some late season hay production or, better yet for some producers, an opportunity to stockpile pasture for fall and winter. Conditions are looking more favorable for wheat and other cool-season cereal forage production this fall.