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Drought whittling away winter forage

Hope for abundant fall forage in Arkansas is shriveling along with the seedlings. Drought, freezing snap combine to worsen forage conditions in northern Arkansas. SW Arkansas still dry; growers could lose wheat, ryegrass stands in sandy soils.

As rain clouds continue to bypass the northern tier of Arkansas’ counties, hope for abundant fall forage is shriveling along with the seedlings, county extension agents said Tuesday. 

“We missed another rain pattern and in this corner, producers realize the fall growth they were counting on will not arrive,” said Robert Seay, Benton County Extension staff chairman for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “Small grain forages are yellowing due to inadequate moisture.”

The clock is ticking down on fall forage season.  

“We have about three weeks of the normal fall growth period remaining,” Seay said. “The window of opportunity for forage growth to benefit from moisture is closing.”

Seay and Boone County Extension Agent Mike McClintock said producers are having to deplete already short hay supplies when the plan was to have cattle on fall forage well into the end of the year.

“Most of my producers did not wait for significant growth on winter annuals before grazing, so this could also be a problem for them down the road,” McClintock said. “They are desperate to hold on.”

Joe Paul Stuart, Little River County Extension staff chairman, said southwestern Arkansas is suffering the same effects.

“We got a half inch rain Sunday morning, but need a lot more,” he said. “Wheat and ryegrass are at a standstill and growers may lose some of their stands in the drier, sandy ground.”

Like their counterparts in the north, many ponds and creeks are still dry, Stuart said.

The Arkansas River Valley, where cattle operations were hit hard over the summer, Pope County Extension Staff Chair Phil Sims, said winter forages in his area “Need a good drink. Preferably a stiff one.”

Growers may get their wish. The National Weather Service  in Little Rock was forecasting a 40 percent chance of rain Sunday, increasing to 60 percent Sunday night.

The freeze that blanketed the northern and western counties during the last weekend of October also made their mark, said John Jennings, professor-forage for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

“A freeze can kill crabgrass forage, rendering it unpalatable for cattle,” he said. “Johnsongrass will have a high risk of prussic acid toxicity until it completely dries down, and bermudagrass and bahiagrass growth will be stopped.”

However, continued dry weather will deliver winter forages a final blow.

“If it is a cold, dry winter we could see winterkill of drought-weakened pastures,” he said.

Seay said some producers are using rotational grazing to save what little growth they’ve got.

“Some producers are aware of the pattern and are using rotational grazing just to keep some leaf intact, just in case it happens to rain, and the potential for regrowth is better,” he said.

“But heck, this is Arkansas. If the temps remain mild and it starts to rain, who knows?”

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