I’ve always heard the saying, “in South Georgia, we are always 3 days from a drought.” This year, in many parts of the state, this proves true. Spring plantings were delayed because it was too wet to get in the field in the latter part of April and throughout May, only for it to turn very dry in June. This has resulted in some cattle producers already feeding hay and baleage. Most of this forage was likely baled this spring and summer. Having to feed hay in July is certainly stressful. Dry weather can often result in managers and producers making decisions that work for NOW; but what about the Future? If we are feeding this year’s hay stocks in July, how do we manage for the coming winter when we aren’t producing more hay? Making a strategic plan to minimize losses in both the near future and in the upcoming winter can help reduce some of this stress moving forward. Your plan should ultimately be broken down into three classifications of drought: Early, Advanced, and Severe or Extreme.

The early stages of drought are classified by slower-growing forages, clear signs of heat stress in mid-day, tire tracks that remain evident 2-3 days after they are made, and rainfall is unlikely in the next week. During this time, producers should make a conscious effort to reduce the stress on their pastures. UGA recommends a couple different options to lower this stress. Lowering stocking rates on your pastures and possibly adding some supplemental feeding options like cottonseed, soy hulls, etc. can help maintain a body condition score of at least a five. While we recommend taking hay samples under any circumstance, knowing your hay quality in a drought or long-term feeding system is imperative to economically maintaining healthy and productive cattle. We should also start thinking about making a cull list starting with older cows, cows that struggle to maintain body condition, cows that are open, or cows that have not weaned a calf for whatever reason. We can also start looking at weaning calves that are seven months or older.

While a lot of the southwestern part of the state would be classified under the earlier stages of drought at the time of publishing this article, locations in the rest of that state would fall closely into the advanced stages of drought. In an advanced stage, producers can expect to see grass blades curled throughout the day and new growth withering at the soil surface. It is usually evident that forage growth has slowed significantly or even stopped. Livestock are going through the forage that is there more quickly and there likely isn’t a chance of rain in the next few weeks. During this stage of drought, we often start seeing receipts at the markets increase and a potential decrease for the price of cull animals. During this time, it is imperative that the producers work to maintain a minimum stubble height for bermudagrass of 2 inches, 2.5 inches for fescue, and 1.5 inches for bahiagrass. Producers will want to provide hay or other supplements and creep feeders for calves to limit grazing pressure and maintain body condition scores of at least a 5. Establishing a “sacrifice” area is important in minimizing the long-term effects of the drought. Poor persistence leads to weed encroachment and soil erosion, which can be costly to the producer in the future. Therefore, it is important to restrict access to the entire pasture. This will limit damage from overgrazing to specific areas instead of your entire pasture. Allow only limited access to the rest of your pasture for brief periods.  During the advanced stages of drought, producers should wean calves 5 months or older and start culling cows more drastically. Producers may need to start culling cows that produce calves with lower weaning weights, bad dispositions, older cows, cows that haven’t bred back, cows that haven’t weaned a calf. Paying close attention to the extended forecast can help make the difficult decisions when culling.

Without periodic rainfalls in the next couple of weeks, we can expect to hit some significant drought concerns in parts of the state. In a severe drought, forages have stopped growing and the remaining grass is curled and brown. We will likely see a significant number of animals being sold and with rainfall unlikely, we expect to lessened feed sources. Producers may want to look at sacrificing additional pasture areas. It will be imperative to maintain supplementation for our cattle and in turn will need to wean all calves that are 60 days or older and begin feeding them an 80% grain/by-product diet.

Unfortunately, drought can be one of the most devasting and stressful situations producers can face. During these situations, our goals should not be to maximize forage or animal productivity because we will likely face harsh short-term losses. However, our goal should be protecting the long-term forage resources and overall herd health of our farm. When the drought ends, producers should give pastures time to recover and wait at least 7 days after that drought-ending rain (at least 0.5 inches) to return to graze plants that have prussic acid potential (sorghums, sudans, johnsongrass) or fields that were fertilized with nitrogen since the last drought-ending rain. Producers should also put together a game plan to renovate the “sacrifice areas” of their pastures to prepare for future years.

When planning for a potential drought in the future, we can make management decisions that can help minimize the effects of the dryer weather. Utilizing drought-resistant summer annuals like pearl millet, forage sorghum, sorghum-sudan, sudan, and crabgrass we can maximize our grazing potential even in a significant drought. Other ways to prevent significant plant stress would be timely and planned herbicide applications. Utilizing certain herbicides during the first part of the growing season can stunt growth within your forage system. By making an herbicide plan before a drought occurs, we can provide more timely and beneficial applications to our forages with the possibility of reducing other outside stresses to the plant. While there is only so much planning and prep you can do to minimize the effects of dry weather, with proper planning we can strive to make the best management decisions for the longevity of our operation. For more information or help making decisions during a drought for your farm, contact your local county extension agent. If you need help finding your nearest agent in Georgia, please call 1-800-ASK-UGA1. 

For more information from Dr. Lisa Baxter, CLICK HERE

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