Pasture and rangelands across the Southwest have taken one beating after another over the last three plus years, and the assault continues as drought across much of the region moves into its fourth year.

And things might not get much better for several more years, according to climatologists who imply that the current drought cycle could persist through 2020. That puts a heavy burden on livestock producers who depend on forages to raise beef cattle efficiently.

“But forewarned is forearmed,” says Larry Redmon, Texas AgriLife forage specialist. Redmon, speaking at a recent crops conference in Altus, Okla., said the past few years have been beyond bad.

“The drought of 2011 was the worst on record, going back to the late 1800s,” he said. And the region remains abnormally dry. Back in January, drought monitors showed 70 percent of Texas in a drought status ranging from abnormally dry to extreme drought. That percentage has declined a bit since then, but latest reports indicate 65 percent or more of the state remains in drought status.

Records essential for livestock losses

Oklahoma, Redmon said, also hovers close to that 65 percent drought status.

Forage production has suffered during this prolonged drought, and cattle herds have been thinned significantly as producers spread fewer cattle across their parched acreage.

“Forage needs water,” Redmon said. “Top growth feeds the roots that create more top growth. The No. 1 limiting factor for forage production is water. Without water, nothing else we do matters in forage production or pasture recovery.”

Still, forage production demands management, in anticipation of rainfall returning. The amount of nutrients needed, he said, depends in part on the type of forage. “Bermudagrass, for instance, demands a lot of fertilizer. If producers are cutting hay, Bermuda is a good choice and one to stay with.”

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It’s been a good option for decades, dating back to 1943 when the first hybrid was produced in Tifton, Ga. Coastal Bermudagrass became a standard for warm-season forage. That hybrid was followed by a by-product of World War II, stockpiles of ammonium nitrate (used in weapons) that was a great source of nitrogen fertilizer. “And it was inexpensive.”

Not so much now. “Fertilizer is no longer cheap,” Redmon said. “The global economy includes China, India and Brazil developing middle classes.” That means a bigger demand for food and the need for more fertilizer. “So prices go up. Fertilizer is high and will stay high unless we see another economic collapse.”