Grazing alternatives to help pastures recover from last year's drought.

Despite being classified as a weed, crabgrass (above) offers high quality forage in the summer.

A drought can be excruciating, but the year after can be just as bad for a cattle producer. Already short of feed, you don't know what the next season will bring.

That's the situation ranchers in many regions find themselves in this year. And, they're looking everywhere for advice and ideas on how to get through another year.

Bruce Anderson's first concern is that ranchers will be tempted this spring to turn cattle out onto pastures not yet recovered from drought stress. Grazing such pastures, even though they look good, can carry long-term negative implications, says the University of Nebraska forage Extension specialist.

“We can be fairly certain some of those heavily grazed drought-stressed pastures have suffered damage, especially to the root systems,” he says. “It takes time for those pastures to recover. The more conservative ranchers can be with their grazing decisions, the better. It helps if they have some alternative forages.”

When making recommendations for grazing options, Anderson first likes to look at what might already be available — such as a stand of winter wheat, winter triticale or winter rye.

“You might be able to devote some or all of these acres to grazing into late spring or early summer, depending on where you live,” he adds. “This can be a reasonable option especially when cattle prices are high and grain prices are low.”

Oats are a second relatively easy and inexpensive forage option for “farmable land” that might be available to a rancher.

“The problem is you're looking at several weeks before a crop can be grazed,” he admits. “But, oats might provide an extended recovery period for drought-stressed pastures.” Anderson says that, in most cases, with some planning and a germination check, ranchers can get by with “bin run” oats as seed.

Anderson also likes to consider the summer annual grasses that can be used for summer pasture, green chop, hay, silage and even winter pasture.

“They're often used as sources of emergency forage,” he says. “In addition, residues of summer annuals make an excellent seedbed mulch for new stands of perennial grass, particularly on sandy soils.”

Early Grazing Options

The summer annual grasses most often used for grazing in Nebraska are sudangrass, or pearl millet, which has become increasingly popular for grazing in recent years. While sudangrass might be available for earlier grazing than pearl millet, there is a risk of prussic acid poisoning with sudangrass.

Sorghum-sudangrass hybrids produce about the same amount of feed as sudangrass when used for pasture. When used for green chopped forage, yields of sorghum-sudangrass hybrids usually exceed sudangrass or forage sorghum.

Forage sorghums are usually best for silage. Making sorghum-sudangrass into hay can be difficult because drying is slow.

Blake Curtis, Clovis, NM, says anyone in a combined farming and ranching situation certainly has a leg up when looking at drought relief over those who might be in a total rangeland grazing operation.

As owner of Curtis and Curtis Inc., a seed distribution company, he gets questions from producers spread over a large area of New Mexico and Texas. Curtis says that much of New Mexico didn't have enough rain last fall for ranchers to get their cool-season forages planted.

“It sure depends on the individual, but for the spring we're looking at some of the ryegrasses, oats, barley, spring wheat and triticale for fast-growing forages,” says Curtis. “Triticale is a forage that jumps out quick.”

He adds that while triticale may typically cost a bit more to seed, in the long run its ease of establishment and production potential outweigh the initial cost.

“Agronomically it's similar to wheat or barley, and it's adapted to a wide geographical range,” Curtis explains. “We like it because of it's a great forage crop. But, like any crop, its use depends on how comfortable a producer is with growing it.”

The Crabgrass Approach

R.L. Dalrymple, Ardmore, OK, rancher and forage agronomist for the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, likes crabgrass in rotational stocking systems. The characteristics that make crabgrass a pest in some situations make it an excellent forage plant in other situations.

“Crabgrass is a relatively high quality forage in the summer when most forages are low quality,” says Dalrymple. “One pasture here has been double cropped with winter pasture rye and crabgrass for 26 years without failure of either crop.”

His primary approach has been to minimum-till farm pastures for cereal rye and volunteer crabgrass. The cereal rye is used for fall and spring pasture.

“The crabgrass is used for summer pasture and/or hay,” says Dalrymple. “Initially, we used the ‘weedy’ crabgrass ecotype. Since 1990 we have used the Red River variety.”

Because crabgrass is of such high quality, the higher value weight gains of stocker cattle are probably the best way to market the forage.

“The production is about three times what we would expect from fertilized introduced grass in this region,” adds Dalrymple. “We've found double cropping with crabgrass produces about 60% more forage than single cropping either rye or crabgrass.”

He emphasizes that use of rotational stocking allows various forage mixtures to perform well within a given season. The short grazing periods, relatively uniform grazing and adequate recovery periods are all responsible for this success.

Examples include bermudagrass-crabgrass mixtures, crabgrass-lespedeza mixtures and rye-wheat-ryegrass-vetch mixtures.

“Rotational stocking allows, and makes successful, several multiple forage cropping and double cropping mixtures,” explains Dalrymple. “Multiple paddocks allow the practice of integrated forage management. It's possible to have a different forage, or forage use, within each paddock.”

High On Hay Barley

In many areas, this year may not be the best time to establish grass or alfalfa stands on dryland pastures, says Dennis Cash, Bozeman, MT, Extension crops specialist for Montana State University. This includes costly activities like renovating hay fields or fertilizing dryland pastures.

“With dry subsoil, these may be risky for the short term, and new seedings would not be productive until 2002.” Risk of another dry year and lower first-year yields of perennials are two good reasons for ranchers to look at growing annual forages on available farm ground.

For those who irrigate in the northern Great Plains and Intermountain regions, Cash's advice is to seed the alfalfa stands, especially if farmers and ranchers can get into their fields early.

“The value of 2001 hay could more than offset normal first-year production costs of alfalfa,” he says. “Winter feed is the largest cost to ranching operations in this area and any small improvement in your forage base can improve your bottom line.”

Cash is high on hay barley as annual forage. In 2000, “Haybet” was the second-leading barley variety in Montana at approximately 80,000 acres.

“Several producers are backgrounding calves on hay barley and barley grain with excellent results,” Cash adds. “We all know how to grow small grains, so there is no learning curve.”

Other options suggested by Cash are oats, triticale, corn, sorghum, sorghum/sudangrass and millet where environmental conditions allow.

“These annual crops could quickly overcome a forage deficit and help get you out of the bucket this year,” explains Cash.

He says to be sure and compare seed costs.

Finally, Cash says if a producer has experience with “alternate” crops for forages, they should “go for it.” Otherwise, 2001 may not be the best year to experiment. “Use the standbys,” he concludes.

And then pray for rain.

Quick Contacts

For more information on “quick” forages: