Even though 94 percent of Texas remains in a situation considered “abnormally dry,” 59 percent of the state in severe drought and almost 30 percent in the “extreme” category, a Texas AgriLife Extension forage specialist predicts “it will rain again.”
But not soon, says Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Texas AgriLife Extension specialist who is based in Overton. “El Nino has failed and La Nina is back. Winter is expected to be drier and warmer than normal.”
Those conditions are expected to persist through February, Corriher-Olson said during the annual Ag Technology Conference on the Texas A&M-Commerce campus. “In East Texas, February is usually the wettest part of the winter. That’s not expected this year.”
Still, she said, ranchers should be prepared to renovate pastures, hay fields and meadows that have been ravaged by two years of devastating drought and, in some cases, over-grazing or aggressive haying.
The temptation was understandable as cattlemen weighed the options of stretching grass as far as possible to prevent, or delay, liquidating herds. Now, many are waiting on a “drought-ending rain” to start rebuilding forage production.
“We need an inch and-a-half of rain just to initiate seed germination,” she said. “We need from 5 inches to 6 inches of rainfall to produce adequate forage for grazing. Hit and miss rain will not be enough.”
Under normal conditions, East Texas has adequate rainfall to maintain forage production. “Now is not normal.”
Forages have been hurt by long-term drought. “It’s what you don’t see that makes the difference,” she said. “The root system is crucial. But most management decisions are made based on what producers can see. If grass is growing, they cut more or graze more. That reduces top growth and pulls from the root system.
“Every time producers continue to graze or cut (drought-stressed grass) the roots die back a little more. In many cases, grass over-grazed will not survive a drought and may not survive even an abnormally dry period.”
She said a healthy plant requires a strong root system and an opportunity to rest to persist from year to year. “If producers spend money on fertilizer, they should make sure the plant is able to utilize the nutrients.”
Weeds also pose problems for drought-stressed forage production. “When we get rain, weeds are the first thing to emerge. Weeds such as goat grass, thistles and bahiagrass take advantage of exposed spots and sunlight to start growing.”
Weeds come from numerous places, including the fields where they begin to emerge. “A lot of seeds lie dormant for years,” she said. With a little moisture and open space, they take advantage of reduced competition and grow. “It’s a perfect storm for weed production.”
The need for producers to buy hay from out of state also may have brought in new weed seed and possibly some species new to the area. “I’ve seen thistles that are native to New York State, not Texas.”
Controlling those weeds should be the first step in renovating pastures. “We have herbicides to control many weeds, even in bermudagrass stands.”
Bringing fertility back to correct levels is also important. “We need to manage fertility. Maintaining fertility in good years helps us survive the bad years,” she said.
Soil analysis is the first step. “Know what the soil needs, especially for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and pH. Sandy soils tend to be acidic. After a drought, collect soil samples and request from the soil analysis the ‘minimum requirement,’ and treat the area like newly established forage.”
Phosphorus is important for root development. Potassium is important for persistence. “East Texas soils tend to be deficient in potassium,” she said. “Nitrogen offers instant gratification. With moisture and nitrogen, grass starts growing.”
Many forage producers tend to make forage fertility decisions based on cost. “But they need a balanced nutrient program,” she said. If one element is out of kilter it can reduce productivity. “Less nitrogen lowers quantity and quality, for instance. So, if a producer needs to make cuts, he should cut across the board and maintain a balanced nutrition system.”
Bermudagrass needs “at least a 5.8 pH level. Below 5.8 the plant’s ability to take up nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium decreases.”
Corriher-Olson said renovation is defined as “making new again,” but renovating forage stands may include anything from completely reworking the stand to tweaking fertility, overseeding, reducing soil erosion, improving weed control, enhancing wildlife habitat or increasing grazing management.
Renovation may also include interseeding or overseeding with no-till techniques into hybrid grass varieties.
Variety selection can be a crucial decision. Bermudagrass, for instance, is well-adapted to well-drained soils, tolerates close grazing and is drought tolerant—if managed properly. It comes in both vegetative and seeded types. Tifton 85, a hybrid with high nutritional value, is a good option but requires sprigging for establishment. It also requires a sound fertility program to maintain stands. Overseeding may be a problem with the tight sod.
Corriher-Olson said seeded varieties are numerous “with a lot of blends. Pay attention to the blends if you don’t want common bermudagrass on your property.”
Producers who opt to replant forage should kill all vegetation before re-establishing the stand. “No competition should be available. Plow or disk the soil to prepare a good seedbed. Incorporate lime, phosphorus and potassium. Fertilize with nitrogen only after the plants have emerged.”
Proper seed depth is essential for seeded forage as is using proper seeding equipment.
Most areas will need moisture before seeding. “Also, control weeds before establishment and later.”
Before grazing, producers should assure a vigorous stand, which could take a year or more to establish. “Manage new growth properly and control grazing and haying.”
Some producers may choose to “thicken a stand.” That, too, begins with a soil test. Growers may plant bermudagrass into a thin stand and fertilize according to soil test results. “Control weeds.”
She warned that some producers may not want to mix bermudagrass seed into hybrid stands.
Renovation might not require reseeding, she notes. “It could be just improving management or allowing the stand to rest and recover.”
Improved management would include weed control, soil testing and adjusting fertility. “Well managed forage is fertilized and stocked appropriately. It’s also not grazed or hayed too sort beyond September,” Corriher-Olson said.