While most of the drought attention was given to corn and soybeans, pastures and hay crops were suffering just as much. Many Corn Belt operations had to ship cattle early and liquidate beef herds because of the lack of forage. And those who kept some livestock have been, and maybe still are, scrambling to find hay for the winter. There are also concerns about how forage and hay crops will be treated by the winter and what can be done to enhance their recovery in the spring. If those are some of your questions, we’re glad you asked.
There are several pro-active management actions which can be taken to help says Iowa State University agronomist Stephen Barnhart. He says some rain has helped relieve the stress of one of the most extreme drought conditions of recent memory, but there is still an uncomfortable feeling about the ability of the pastures and hay crops to recover sufficiently.
The fall is the time that such forages adjust themselves to shorter periods of light and progressively cooler temperatures into a “cold hardening” stage. He says the genetics of the variety and the local weather will have a lot to do with its success and how the plant crown and taproot are able to withstand the onslaught of winter. The more successful varieties can survive temperatures as low as 0ºF without suffering tissue damage. At lower temperatures the ability of the plant to withstand the conditions varies with the genetics.
For successful survival ahead of winter the plant needs 5-6 weeks of uninterrupted growth to accumulate sufficient carbohydrates and proteins before dormancy. Once a killing freeze of 23 to 24ºF occurs, the forage should not be cut or grazed until the spring. That is for the benefit of the plant. However for the benefit of your livestock, if you need to bale or graze, Barnhart says it is best to wait for the freeze, and leave a 5-6 inch stubble, but don’t take the last cutting if the crop was planted earlier in the year.
Barnhart gives the same advice for pasture management. He says allow 3-4 weeks of fall recovery before a killing freeze, even though it is impossible to know when that will occur. He adds that if grazing is necessary, leave at least a 3 inch stubble.
Barnhart is quick to add, “The practical problem with these management strategies is that it involves removing livestock from pasture. And no more hay harvest – in an already hay shortage season. I can’t decide what is most important for you.”