• Ruth Correll: Pastures and drought, looking forward, pt. 1

    By Ruth Correll -

    Due to conversations with several beef producers regarding summer grazing, I am going to do a series of columns on native warm season grasses. Hopefully this will help producers who are looking for some alternatives to thin tall fescue stands or bermudagrass. The columns are from Patrick Keyser, professor and director of the center for native grassland management.

    Many areas in the Mid-South are or have experienced drought – with many in severe drought. These dry conditions limit options for forage managers now, but it is worth looking forward and considering steps that can position you to better handle future droughts. One thing that comes to mind is the importance of drought-hardy perennials. Annuals, warm- and cool season, are valuable tools and will, no doubt, play a role in recovery strategies for many producers. But, perennials are a more reliable option for providing forage than annuals. When spring rains are not timely, desirable summer annuals like crabgrass will not grow. Similarly, species seeded stands of wheat and rye cannot develop in the fall without timely rain.

    A second thing that comes to mind is that so many of our pastures in this region have taken a beating from successive droughts over the past decade. One result is that we no longer have vigorous, strong cool-season pastures. Tall fescue is our most drought-tolerant cool-season option, but many of our “fescue” pastures no longer have good stands. Instead, we have an abundance of annuals, low quality warm-season grasses, and weeds. Renovation of tall fescue pastures help correct this problem.

    Third, we need drought-hardy perennial warm-season forages. Without reliable, high-quality summer pastures, we put much greater stress on our cool-season pastures by continued grazing through hot, dry summers. This is a time when cool-season pastures need to be rested. Providing a perennial warm season complement to tall fescue will improve forage during this period. It will also allow for better management of both pastures and, in turn, improved sward condition.

    Our most drought tolerant option for summer pasture are native grasses such as, switchgrass, Indiangrass and big bluestem. These plants have deep root systems at 10 or more feet deep and can access water not available to other grasses. In addition, warm-season species have inherently greater drought tolerance than cool-season grasses because of their physiology. As you evaluate your pastures in coming months, consider converting some of those that have not been able to maintain reliable tall fescue during the repeated droughts of recent years. Such droughty sites might be a good option for native warm-season grasses because of their adaption to such conditions. 

    Developing perennial pastures on a foundation of drought-hardy species for both the cool or tall fescue and warm-season or native grasses will put you in a stronger position to handle future droughts. A good target for the warm-season natives would be about 30 percent of your pasture base. Such a combination will allow each forage to produce when it is at its best and enable the other to remain vigorous.

    Part 2 will be coming. Food for thought – “Productivity is never an accident…but due to planning ahead.” 

    For more information, contact the UT-TSU Extension Office in Wilson County at 615-444-9584. You can also find us on Facebook or visit extension.tennessee.edu/wilson. Ruth Correll, UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent in Wilson County, may be reached at 615-444-9584 or [email protected]

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