My colleague Johnny Rogers has often said “what we recommend always works so much better when it rains” and that is so true. We often have dry spells through the year in the area where we both live and farm, and the soils are very shallow. Everything that could be plowed was farmed hard with tobacco for centuries, so most of the topsoil was gone long ago. Despite decades of building soil health through adaptive grazing management on our farm we still have a long way to go, and growth of the forages in the summer slows very dramatically about 2 weeks after the last good rain. As I will explain, we finally did get the rain and things look a lot better to me today!
Avoiding over-grazing in early summer. The most important time to focus on not overgrazing pasture is during the summer. If it is dry you should always have in your mind that you might have to feed hay if you finish the next cycle and find that nothing is ready to graze. I was two weeks away from that summer hay feeding just three weeks ago. We had a dry fall in 2021, a dry winter, and a very dry spring. This really complicated getting our annuals in and kept me working hard to get the most out of ryegrass which we grazed this year into June.
When it rains your pastures should soak it up. I have a lot of travel planned for July, so hay feeding was not at all a good thing to think of. My neighbor that looks after the farm when I am gone didn’t sign up for that big job. On June 23 a line of storms came through and it looked like most folks got at least a few tenths. Somehow we were blessed with 1.75”. Then June 27 we had another 1.75”. I left for a trip to Arizona the see my mom and friends for the 4th of July, and when I got home July 6 I found 2.5” in the gauge. Everything comes out as soon as there is good rain at our place, and that puts our place apart from neighbors up and down the road whose pastures are still struggling. The key to our situation is that every drop of that rain went into the soil. I found no evidence of runoff in any of the pastures.
Poor man’s summer annuals. I had to change plans on the summer annuals as it was so dry during June that I didn’t want to put the seed in the ground until it rained. We were with our NRCS Pastureland Ecology class in mid-June at Johnny’s place, and he showed us his “Poor man’s annuals” which is ryegrass in the winter and crabgrass in summer. This stuck in my head, and while I did plant half the annual acres planned with cowpea and sudangrass, but the other ½ I decided to let the volunteer crabgrass and johnsongrass come on in. At this point it looks like a good decision as that “poor man’s summer annual” is thick and very high quality and is fitting our forage demand better than if I had planted all the acres early to sorghum-sudan. I know that Johnsongrass is not a summer annual, but it is a very high quality plant when vegetative and it wants to be part of our forage system..
Glyphosate-resistant weeds. Killing some of our fescue pastures and growing annuals has brought out one of the disadvantages of using too much glyphosate in a forage system. The areas where we grow annuals have gradually shown more and more weeds that are hard to kill with glyphosate. There is one field especially that has a whole lot of horsenettle. I sprayed that with 2 quarts of glyphosate per acre in late May, and it just made the horsenettle mad. Also, we are seeing more and more palmer amaranth and Johnsongrass across the farm. This is on most of the fields where I decided to let crabgrass take over, and I plan to come back later in the summer and spray DuraCor to get a handle on those difficult weeds. My plan is to plant much of that acreage to Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue, but I really don’t want to do that until I get the weeds under better control.
How do you grow grass without fertilizer? I have been working with Dr. Alan Franzluebbers with the USDA recently, and he is developing a system to predict nitrogen availability in soils. This approach is very interesting, and his samples of soil from around the region show that some grow little forage without fertilizer, but that some will grow substantial amounts. In general healthy soil cycles nitrogen which feeds plants. Because of the high fertilizer prices this year I took Dr. Franzluebbers advice and didn’t put out any all spring. What I learned is that we can grow a lot of forage without fertilizer, but not everywhere on the farm. Adding fertilizer masks where the weak places are in your soil, so going without will certainly help you learn where to unroll hay or balegraze to improve soil health next year.
This month I did finally decide to put on some nitrogen fertilizer on some selective acres. I paid $1230/ton for urea, which is $1.34 per lb of Nitrogen. That is crazy expensive and far more than I ever paid. Where I think I can get some value from it is on summer annuals that can make very efficient growth. I put 100 lbs of urea per acre on the pasture I earlier established Quick and Big Crabgrass on. This pasture is where we will wean our calves about August 1, so with another good 0.3” slow rain last night it should really give us some good grazing just when we need it. It will be very expensive feed, probably over $120 per ton, but concentrates are really expensive right now, so it still likely will work out to our benefit.
I am happy we had rain, but I am also mindful that many friends across the country are still in pretty bad drought. If you are still dry keep on taking care of your pastures. In many situations you will grow little forage without rain, but once the rains do come your attention to grazing management will pay off.
Matt Poore, Alliance for Grassland Renewal
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion. For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org