Winter cattle feeding

After a snowy winter, producers will have some management decisions to make as pastures continue to recover from last year’s drought. 

A shift from the worst drought in nearly a decade to a winter of record-breaking snowfall has farmers and ranchers across Missouri looking for the first signs of spring to evaluate pastures.

“There will be a lot of management decisions to be made this spring — decisions that younger producers, both crop and livestock, haven’t had to make in their lifetime,” says Ken Keesaman, owner of KK Farms Red Angus in Stewartsville, Missouri.

The 2018 grazing season left pastures in poor to very poor condition, according to USDA drought monitoring reports, leaving many producers to wonder what will be left when the snow melts.

“A lot of pastures are grubbed to dirt in our area,” Keesaman says. “Where we fed this winter, there won’t be much grass left. You just can’t help it, it is so wet. This spring we will have to go in with a no-till drill and put down some millet and oats with a little red clover to get things growing back.”

A 2019 goal for Keesaman and other Missouri livestock producers is to begin to replenish the forage supplies that were depleted by drought, to get back to a comfortable level.

Interseeding and renovation will be the words of the year, with nearly every pasture in the state affected to some degree.

David Davis, superintendent of the University of Missouri’s Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus, says that the current pasture conditions across the state present the perfect opportunity for producers to look at revitalizing and renovating their grazing areas.

“Mother Nature has a way of bouncing back, and if you have the time to wait [for slow-growing stressed stands], you may not have to do a whole lot. For the rest of us, now is the time to start thinking about interseeding more desirable species and, if the stand is a total loss, pasture renovation,” Davis says.

Whether interseeding or renovating, fertility will be one of the most critical components to establishing forages this spring. Because many producers took late cuttings and restocked pastures after growth seen from late fall rains, plants may have been left unequipped to grow quickly this spring.

“To get through winter, perennial plants need to store carbohydrates in the fall. If they are harvested [grazed] during that time frame, they may not have the leaf area to store the carbohydrates they need to grow,” Davis says of the wait-and-see situation.

But he says he is optimistic. If producers have been feeding hay through the winter, phosphorus and potassium levels in pastures should be adequate, but he recommends that producers test and apply nutrients where necessary.

Because pastures are seldom renovated, most are stocked with grass and legume varieties that were developed 40 or 50 years ago, Davis says. If you are in a situation where you have to renovate your pasture, you might as well take advantage of what new varieties have to offer, he notes.

Another challenge drought-stressed pastures will face this spring is weed competition, for which Davis suggests quick grazing rotations early in the season.

“If you can stay on top of weeds and graze them off early, you will be surprised by how many you can kill,” he says. “Broadleaf weeds at 6 to 8 inches tall and annual grasses — before they head out — are palatable, and cattle will graze them.”

Davis also urges producers to remember that any herbicide that will kill the broadleaf weeds in a pasture will also kill the legumes, but he says he would rather see a grass-only pasture than a mixed stand with weeds.