February has always been a tough month for me on the farm. Whether we have good stockpile on the pasture or not we are usually feeding hay in February. Winter hay feeding for about 45 days is our normal expectation, and I actually enjoy it for about a month. Unfortunately, due to weather conditions in the last 5 years things have really been different and it is taking a toll on me and on our farm. In the last 5 years we have had dry falls (very dry a couple of times) and very wet winters. In 4 of the last 5 years the rainfall from November through March has been well above the long term average. The result has been a deterioration of the cool season pastures to where they contain a lot of warm season species.
We have gone from having predominantly tall fescue stands with some warm season species (mostly dallisgrass), to spotty tall fescue stands with substantial dallisgrass, crabgrass and foxtail. We also have a lot of red and white clover that come into these pastures in spring, so the summer grazing conditions are still usually very good. In many areas, the forage species mix is mostly desirable, but in some areas we have a lot of undesirable species like Jointhead Arthraxon, Japanese Stiltgrass, and Nimblewill. The Jointhead and Stiltgrass are mostly in wet or shaded areas and they are not a huge problem because cattle will eat them. However, Nimblewill is a warm season perennial that aggressively spreads because livestock generally will not graze it.
The problem is that without favorable growing weather in the fall, and our general lack of fertilizer application in recent years, species like tall fescue just don’t thrive, and the less productive species do. This results in reduced yield overall, and not as much winter stockpile as we would like. The result is a necessity to purchase and feed more hay to compensate, at least for the time being. We have established our brood cow numbers (stocking rate) based on historical productivity and we have an agreement to supply a certain number of head to our local market so it is hard for us to reduce animal numbers quickly.
The question at hand is whether the weather pattern the last 5 years is an anomaly, or if it is “The New Normal”? You can debate all you want about the causes of climate change, but we all know things do seem to be changing. The climatologists’ outlook for the future is for drier summers and falls, and wetter winter, which seems to fit our current weather pattern.
So, what should we do about our situation? First, and most obvious is to reduce stocking rate. Reducing cow numbers is something we have been doing each year already. Unfortunately, as we have reduced numbers, cow size has increased and so has the size of yearlings and finishers. Given another poor grass growing year in 2022, we have a more drastic reduction in cow numbers planned this spring and summer.
We also have been putting off planting perennial pasture back on land that was converted to annuals starting in 2014. We now have 40 acres where we grow annuals, and that does help with our overall forage production and summer forage quality. However, this is not as good as it once was as the unfavorable conditions in these recent years has resulted in difficulty getting good stands of both cool-season and warm-season annuals. We always intended to plant these fields (some of our best land) back to novel endophyte tall fescue, and this fall we are going to get that accomplished.
We will also convert some other toxic fescue acres that need renovation into annuals. This is my favorite system for getting rid of toxic tall fescue. At the Alliance for Grassland Renewal we talk about the “Spray-Smother-Spray” and the “Spray-Wait-Spray” systems, and those really do work. There are a lot of steps to follow that start a year before planting the new fescue. This is pretty structured and time sensitive, so for me it is easier to get motivated to implement the “Just Kill It and Plant an Annual” system. After several years of annuals, land should be in good condition to restart cool season perennials.
We plan on planting pure stands of Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue on about half the acres currently in annuals. If you are interested in what variety we will be using, we will do something a little unconventional. We will plant a mixture of all 7 varieties that are commercially available. There is recent research that shows that pastures do considerably better if they contain a mixture of different varieties of tall fescue with different endophytes. You can read an article by Alayna Jacobs and Rebecca McCulley about this fascinating research elsewhere in this month’s Novel Notes.
On the remainder of the acres we will plant a complex mix of cool season perennials including novel endophyte tall fescue, orchardgrass, red clover, white clover, plantain and chicory. This kind of mix should result in much higher forage quality and performance on our finishing animals. We have been working with several producers on planting these kind of mixtures, and this approach has me very interested.
On much of our pastures we will do our best to manage what nature offers. I am very interested in the warm and cool season mixtures that are developing on the back part of our farm where the least desirable soils are. These pastures have a lot of purple top, a warm-season perennial, red and white clovers that are tolerant of the moderately low pH (5.8), and many other diverse cool and warm-season species. On the middle and front of our property where soils are better, we will continue to renovate and will add both additional novel endophyte tall fescue-based pastures, and probably also some native warm-season grasses in a silvopasture we have planned.
I understand that many of our readers across the eastern U.S. are dealing with muddy situations and deteriorating pastures similar to ours. As you grind through the rest of the winter spend some time thinking about how you can change your management to make things better the next time we have these conditions. Adjusting stocking rate, improving grazing management, actively renovating pasture, and maintaining our roads and farm paths should be on everyone’s “To Do List”. We are an incredibly adaptable species if we put our mind to it, so ponder your challenges and make your own plans to improve the climate resilience of your farm.
~ Matt Poore, NC State and Chair of the 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