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Recommendations on managing forage as drought increases

Drought-pressed producers asking about options. Only bright spot is high quality early hay this year, Jennings said.

Forage producers need to preserve any remaining forage as drought tightens its grip on Arkansas, said John Jennings, Extension forage specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, area covered by a drought classification jumped from just below 25 percent to more than 94 percent in a week. And rain was not in the forecast for the next week.

“The likelihood of a record-setting dry spring across most of the state is very unsettling for forage and livestock growers,” said Jennings. “Hay barns are still empty and the spring hay crop yield is running about 50-60 percent of normal at this point.

“The only small bright spot is that overall average hay quality this spring will likely be better due to the early seasonal harvest. Pasture growth has stalled due to the dry conditions and the small amount of hay may be needed to feed livestock if rain doesn’t arrive soon.”

Robert Seay, Benton County Extension staff chair, said the drought “will be an ongoing story.

“We currently have extremely thin forage stands that were created by the 2010-2011 dry pattern. This is further impacted by the 2012 dry pattern. That simply means more weeds, reduced yields and more expense required to re-establish these fields at some point in the future.”

Jennings said producers are asking him about their options for a dry summer. One option is to cull poor performing cattle to reduce the amount of forage needed. “However, improving pasture management can also be effective. Producers who plan ahead get themselves into a position to take advantage of better growing conditions when those conditions eventually arrive.”

Some recommendations from Jennings:

  • Protect any remaining standing forage by shutting pasture gates or by using temporary electric fencing.

Manage it like standing hay and feed it a few acres at a time to make it last as long as possible. A solar fence energizer and single strand of temporary electric wire can be installed in a matter of minutes to subdivide pastures as needed.

  • Rotational grazing is a good drought management tool.

Rotational grazing helps maintain forage growth longer into a drought period than continuous grazing. Overgrazing weakens plants and leads to shortened root systems causing them to respond more slowly to rain and fertilizer than do healthier plants. Rotating pastures during drought conditions can help protect the pastures that will be needed for summer production.

  • Although all forages produce lower yield when drought occurs, some species including bermudagrass and KY-31 tall fescue can tolerate heavy grazing pressure and still persist while others are eliminated from the stand.

Manage grazing pressure carefully during prolonged dry weather to prevent loss of high quality forage species such as novel endophyte fescue, clover, and orchardgrass.

  • Feeding hay and limit grazing during dry weather can stretch available forage on drought-stressed pastures.

If all pastures are already grazed short and no regrowth is being produced then cattle can be shut in a single pasture and fed hay until better growing conditions arrive. This practice may be detrimental to that pasture, but it helps protect forage in other pastures that will needed for later grazing.

For more information on forage production contact your county Extension office or visit


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