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Forage producers hoping for bumper yields

published: April 14th 2023
by: Adam Russell
source: Southern Livestock Standard

Texas forage producers are hoping improved moisture conditions across parts of the state could lead to a bumper crop this spring and summer, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.

      Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension forage specialist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Overton, said soil moisture conditions in much of the state have improved but forage producers need to plan ahead to maximize yields.

      North and East Texas cool-season forages, including ryegrass, looked very good following several rounds of rainfall that improved moisture conditions dramatically, Corriher-Olson said. Winter freezes set back forages like clovers, but consistent moisture followed by warmer, sunnier days has led to excellent late-winter, early spring grazing and production opportunities.

      “Cool-season forages were delayed by freezes and lack of moisture, but they’ve really come on in recent weeks,” she said. “We’re in good shape in East Texas; other parts of the state have improved somewhat. Hopefully, moisture continues to move through the state and deliver timely rain, but we really need to focus on ways to maximize what moisture is at our disposal.”

      For a range of tips and recommendations related to Texas forage crops, go to Corriher-Olson’s website for her weekly newsletter Forage Fax at https://foragefax.tamu.edu/.

Pasture management critical for forage producers

      Corriher-Olson said rangeland and pasture management going into spring will continue to impact forage performance as the cool-season varieties give way to the warm-season forages.

      Most management questions in recent weeks have been related to fertilization and weed control, she said.

      Fertilizer applications for summer perennials are tricky this time of year, she said. Daytime temperatures may feel like spring and signal the need to fertilize, but applying fertilizer too early can feed cool-season forages and weeds.

      Nighttime temperatures need to be in the 60s consistently before summer grasses begin actively growing, Corriher-Olson said. Waiting will allow warm-season grasses access to the nutrients and a more efficient and effective fertilizer application.

      “The timing may depend on where you are in the state, but we dipped into the 40s and 50s last week,” she said. “A lot of pastures may have broken dormancy, and producers want to capitalize on the moisture, but we want to be effective with our input and avoid feeding weeds and winter forages that we don’t want competing with our Bermuda grass.”

      Fertilizer prices have softened over recent months, but not enough to abandon strategic planning to maximize production efficiency, she said. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous prices have been up and down, and forage producers should assume they will not return to pre-pandemic levels.

      Corriher-Olson said a soil test is a good tool to help guide forage producers when considering fertilizer options and needs.

      “Soil tests are important because they help you focus dollars where they are needed most,” she said. “A lot of people want to do well this year because production was so bad last year, but fertilizer is a big component of yield.”

      Corriher-Olson said producers should submit soil tests as soon as possible as labs typically experience higher volumes of submissions as the season nears. Soil test bags and instructions can be found at most AgriLife Extension offices around the state. Samples are sent to the Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory in Bryan-College Station.

Weed control reduces competition

      Providing an environment where forages can outcompete weeds and winter annuals is another critical management step, Corriher-Olson said. Many pastures were overgrazed as producers contended with lack of forage growth and production due to drought. A healthy introduced pasture should have 3-4 inches of grass stubble and not be grazed until grasses are 6-8 inches tall.  

      In those cases, pasture rehabilitation may be in order, she said. Destocking or greatly reducing cattle numbers to allow grasses to begin recovering will be necessary. Fertilization will be an important step in the rehabilitation, but so will weed control to reduce competition for sunlight, available moisture and nutrients.

      Volunteer ryegrass and winter weeds like groundsel and buttercups need to be controlled to allow warm season grasses to grow, she said. Forage producers should identify undesirable plants and treat them with an appropriate herbicide before they bloom or seed out, she said.

      In many parts of the state, rainfall and subsequent soil moisture levels will determine how quickly pastures recover, Corriher-Olson said.

      “They need rest from grazing, but nutrient fertility will be important for Bermuda grass, which needs adequate potassium and phosphorous to recover from drought,” she said. “Soil moisture conditions and rainfall going forward will be another factor in how quickly those pastures bounce back.”

Producers should focus on quality over quantity

      Corriher-Olson said forage producers should focus on producing the highest quality hay to meet livestock nutrition needs. Good pre-harvest management will maximize forage production as weather allows, but timing harvests correctly impacts digestibility and quality.

      Waiting too long leads to increased amounts of fiber and reduced digestibility, especially during the summer heat, she said. 

      Corriher-Olson said the weather outlook for the next 90 days shows equal chances of precipitation, but also higher chances of above-average temperatures. Higher temperatures mean increased evapotranspiration and potential plant stress, which can impact nutritive value.

      “Quality should be the top priority when it comes to production or purchases,” she said. “The nutrients available in the forage will determine how much you must invest in supplements during the winter. Investing in high quality hay with good digestibility now can pay dividends later by reducing feed costs.”


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