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Fight drought with fill-in forages, better grazing utilization

With persistent drought across the Plains, producers should plan ahead for a shorter-than-normal supply of grazing forages.

June 12, 2023

1 Min Read
Drought-stricken pasture
SHORT SUPPLY: With drought and short pasture supplies across much of the region, producers should think about fill-in forages and better pasture utilization to stretch grazing inventories. Curt Arens

by Ben Beckman

A cool spring and dry weather in many parts of Nebraska and the Plains has resulted in lower-than-expected pasture production in some places. With summer upon us, even ample moisture now may not return pastures — especially those that are cool-season dominated — to full productivity. So, what can we do to stretch a limited forage supply?

While annual forages that prefer cool temperatures such as brassicas and small grains may not be an option to plant, those needing summer forage are right on time to get heat-loving species like sorghums, sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, millets and sudangrass in the ground.

These annual grasses can produce large quantities of forage for harvest. Different species lend themselves to different harvest methods, so know how you plan on feeding or grazing before you plant.

Make most of it

Another way to stretch pasture is through improved utilization. Under typical grazing conditions, we only plan on cattle consuming 25% to 30% (harvest efficiency) of a pasture’s production. Half is left for plant health, while another quarter is fouled or trampled.

Something as simple as a single-wire electric cross-fence can improve harvest efficiency to 35%. When paired with a back fence, the rest provided to previously grazed plants can aid in recovery and provide regrowth for use later in the year.

Finally, begin looking at herd records now, and plan for destocking later on in the year if conditions continue to deteriorate.

Planning for a short forage year is not a task we want to undertake in June, but it may be needed this year. If the worst does happen, looking at other forage options, better utilizing pasture and planning for destocking now will be worth the effort. 

Beckman is a Nebraska Extension educator based in Hartington.

Source: UNL Pasture and Forage Minute

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