Drought-damaged pastures require special care this spring

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ARDMORE, Okla. — Agricultural experts with The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation have words of wisdom for farmers and ranchers following last year’s historic drought - be careful with your pastures.

The record-setting drought rivaled the long maligned dry spells of the mid-1950s and even the Dust Bowl period. Agricultural producers across the southern portion of the United States - 14 states in all - experienced varying degrees of drought conditions with Oklahoma and Texas receiving the brunt of the heat and lack of precipitation.

Despite recent rainfall, ramifications of the drought are still being felt throughout the Southern Great Plains as farmers and ranchers prepare for the 2012 forage production season. (Forages are plants such as grasses and legumes that ruminant animals consume.) The hot, dry summer left many pastures severely damaged and thin from overgrazing, meaning producers should take extra precautions this spring.

"Livestock producers should be aware that the roots of forage plants have weakened, making them even more susceptible to any additional drought damage," said James Rogers, Ph.D., assistant professor. "Even if favorable growing conditions return in 2012, producers should keep stocking rates reduced to give forages a chance to generate leaf growth and regenerate lost root mass."

This fall, growing conditions improved somewhat in the region. Combined with overgrazed lands, this resulted in a strong presence of cool-season annual grasses, such as ryegrass, in pastures typically dominated by warm-season grasses. "Cool-season grasses provide excellent early spring grazing or hay production, but can present a downside," Rogers said. "However, if not removed by mid-May, these annuals will compete with and delay warm-season grass production, further hindering the drought recovery process."

Additionally, weakened pastures provide opportunity for weeds to come sooner and in greater numbers this spring. To prevent infestation, Rogers recommends producers begin scouting for weeds early and apply the appropriate herbicide for the target species if necessary. "Failure to control weeds will result in reduced forage production and further stand thinning," Rogers said. "Weed control is a serious topic that requires additional education. We encourage producers to get as much information on weed control as possible. They can call agricultural consultants at the Noble Foundation or a local county extension office."

Despite some positive indications this winter, the seasonal U.S. drought outlook (available at www.droughtmonitor.unl.edu) is predicting that drought conditions will persist through May. "Even though many perennial grass stands in the Southern Great Plains have been weakened or damaged, pastures can recover with proper management," Rogers said. "Producers must evaluate the current conditions of their pastures and assemble a plan, being mindful of the potential for drought, decrease in stocking rates and proper control of weeds and other annuals."



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