Forage Management for Drought Recovery

Ed Rayburn
Extension Forage Agronomist
WVU Extension Service

Drought situations can be hard on livestock producers both financially and psychologically. It is also hard on our pastures and hay fields. It is a good time to review what needs to be done to help our pastures and hay lands recover from a drought, so that they can be as productive as possible the following year.

Good managers have made sure that the animals did not overgraze too much. These fields will usually grow rapidly once soil moisture is restored and daily temperatures moderate. For such fields (be they orchardgrass, bluegrass, or tall fescue), an August application of 50-60 pounds of nitrogen per acre along with a 42-day rest to restore root reserves is all that is needed to get a good healthy stand. To ensure good grass tiller growth, these stands should be grazed this fall. Allow livestock to graze the grass to a height of 3-4 inches if orchardgrass and endophyte-free tall fescue, or to 2 inches if bluegrass or endophyte-infected tall fescue. This is best done between mid-October and late November to stimulate tiller bud formation for growth next year. If the growth is not too dense, it can be grazed later in December. Dense stands grazed after early December will have open ground spaces. These make good areas for frost seeding clovers in February to thicken the clover in the field. When using frost seeded clover, do not apply nitrogen the spring of the seeding or the seedlings will be smothered and the seed wasted.

On pastures that have been overgrazed to the point that orchardgrass and bluegrass plants have died, the use of no-till annual ryegrass is an alternative for getting forage production this fall and next spring. No-till 20 pounds good-quality annual ryegrass seed per acre, once moisture returns. If there is good rainfall, an August seeding, along with 50-60 units of nitrogen, may provide good growth for fall grazing. Again graze the stand to 3-4 inches to ensure good tiller growth for next spring. Annual ryegrass may have winter mortality if too thick a stand is left to over winter under the snow. Annual ryegrass will produce into June or July but then die out. By using some orchardgrass or endophyte-free tall fescue in the seeding (8 pound seed per acre), you will be able to have a perennial stand develop after the rye grass. In these mixed stands you may want to cut the annual ryegrass seed back to 10-15 pounds per acre.

The following fact sheets will be of help. They are also available PDF format from the table of contents page. Thanks go to the folks from Maryland who are cooperating with us on our Forage-Livestock System Site.

1998 Annual Ryegrass Performance in Western Maryland Demonstration Report (PDF)

1998 Marshall Annual Ryegrass Demonstration (PDF)

On corn fields that have been chopped, annual ryegrass or cereal rye can be used as a cover crop to catch nitrogen left over from the corn crop and to provide fall or spring forage production. A fact sheet on this is at:

Small Grains as Forage Crops (PDF)

Craig Yohn has also provided the following web sites that can be of help in making these drought decisions.

Article on Small Grains:

Annual Rye Publication from Oregon State:

PNW_Circular/Nebraska - Small Grains for Silage or Hay

If the weather remains dry through August and September, do not make a planting that year. Wait until spring and no-till in orchardgrass or endophyte-free tall fescue to thicken the forage stand. Also add some legumes such as red or ladino clover to help improve forage quality and provide fixed nitrogen for the grasses. If you want a quicker establishment of the grasses leave out the legume and use 50-60 units of nitrogen after seeding and then again after hay harvest or the second grazing. The following fact sheets provide seeding rates and methods.

Recommended Seeding Rates of Forage Species When Seeded Alone or in Mixtures (94) (PDF) - 5302
Combining Forage Species in a Seeding Mixture (93) (PDF) - 5304
Frost Seeding Pastures and Hay Meadows (95) PDF Format - 5312
Frost and Walk-in Clover Seedings (95) (PDF) - 5312.2
No-Till Seedings (97) (PDF) - 5314
Walk-in Seedings (PDF) - 5315