The worst portion of the 2012 drought in the Midwest occurred with the summer heat in June and July, but the hope for recovery never came to most pastures in late summer and fall. Some regions received substantial rains for a few weeks in August but even those areas have turned dry again. Pasture growth never flourished for most of the growing season. Now with the frost and snow season knocking on the door the hope of additional pasture growth is rapidly vanishing across the Midwest.

Management decisions made by grazing farms in 2012 may not have been according to textbook recommendations. Many farms remained optimistic or indecisive for too long, over grazing pastures and hurting the plants growth potential for next year. When you are between a rock – no pasture growth left, and a hard place – feed prices at unprecedented levels, the decisions are not easily made. Given all of this there are still decisions that can be made yet this fall and next year to reduce the impact of this year’s drought on the livestock grazing farms.

The first one is to make sure a drought plan is in place in 2013. With droughts only coming around maybe once a decade it is easy to forget or ignore the risk of drought until you are in the middle of one. But farms who routinely run more grazing acres than they need, keep an extra supply of hay on hand, or keep soil fertility at accceptable levels on pastures and hay fields (these are all plans to help manage drought) were rewarded in 2012. They are in a better position than farms that did not have these measures in place. Droughts can linger for more than one year and all farms should enter 2013 with that reality in mind.

This fall, if the winter forage supply is not in place, there is still the opportunity to graze or bale corn stalks/fodder to stretch the winter hay supply for beef cows. Visit Michigan State University’s (MSU) Beef Team website or the Michigan State University Extension Beef topic page to gain more information.

The other sound option in 2012 is to cull the herd to match the winter forage supply. This decision is easier to make this year because of acceptable cull prices. Culling can alleviate the winter forage shortage, and though it may reduce revenue in 2013, it will also provide those overgrazed pastures more opportunity to recover with fewer animals grazing them. Rebuilding the herd can then begin when and if precipitation allows acceptable pasture growth.

Drylot feeding the cow herd or ewe flock has been advised this year to rest the drought-stressed, short pasture plants (less than 8 inches tall) during this critical fall period when the plants recharge their food reserves for the winter. If possible, doing so is a good management practice that can reward the farm with better forage growth next summer. Once the growing season is complete, usually the end of October in Michigan, these pastures can be grazed with little impact on next year’s growth.

It should be remembered the manure resources in these drylot sites is valuable and these nutrients should be recovered and spread on pastures and/or crop fields if at all possible. Also once the grazing season is complete, feeding of forages to the herd or flock is better done from a manure nutrient recovery standpoint, out on the pastures and/or crop fields for as long as possible.       

Next March, those over-grazed pastures can become prime candidates for frost seeding legumes into them.

Next spring, on pastures where frost seeding was not done, consider soil testing and applying fertilizer to pastures that were drought stressed and over grazed in 2012. Research conducted at the MSU Lake City BioAgResearch Center in 2012 revealed that even with the severe dry weather in early summer, a spring time application of 110 lbs./acre of nitrogen fertilizer yielded an extra 1 ton/acre of hay equivalent forage growth over not applying any nitrogen fertilizer. At a hay equivalent value of $135/ton and a fertilizer cost for urea of $835/ton this application netted an extra $26/acre above the cost of fertilizer and spreading, and this was in a drought year! Surprisingly this was the most profitable practice of various trials of spring and summer time nitrogen applications with some being nitrogen protected slow release products. It appears the application took advantage of the springtime moisture and advanced the stand more than the other trials, even though there was only one-tenth of an inch of rain for 65 days in early summer.