Ranchers offered strategies for drought

Wednesday, September 26, 2018
With water spraying from above, simulating rainfall, conservationist Henry Rauch showed students at Field Day how different plots of soil, with varying levels of vegetation, held the water better and protected against erosion. Murray Bishoff/Cassville Democrat

Different forages, feeding strategies suggested at Field Day

Due to this summer's drought, several presenters at the annual Field Day, held at the University of Missouri's Southwest Research Center, spoke about maximizing preservation of water of the farm, alternative forages and what to do when facing a dry season.

Conservationists Henry Rauch and David Harrison with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service provided a demonstration for what happens when rain falls on five soil plots, each reflecting a different management style. These varied from tilled soil to no till up to planting a cover crop.

Horticulture specialist Tim Schnackenburg, right, stands next to some six-foot high Indiangrass, a native forage that can produce quantity in a drought year, an alternative for local cattle producers. Murray Bishoff/Cassville Democrat

The water released onto the plots was either captured in the bed or ran off into jar below. The more plant matter in the ground to hold the soil, they noted, the less water ran off. Plant cover also reduced erosion. In dry periods, they stressed, holding water in the soil becomes critical, not only for the crop life but also for preservation of the soil itself.

Horticulture specialist Tim Schackenburg offered a primer on fescue and the detriments in the heat resistant grass due to the endophyte fungus that helps keep fescue hearty. Researchers have had some success creating fescue with an endophyte that does not produce the harmful enzyme Ergovaline, but convincing cattle producers to switch has been an ongoing challenge. Seven fescues with a non-harmful endophyte are now on the market.

Other forages should be considered as an alternative to fescue. Schnackenburg said alfalfa offers higher nutrition, but requires four or five cuttings a year, not something every ranch will want to do.

Some native grasses can also offer more forage in years when rain is short. Big Bluestem and Indiangrass grow to great heights, stands easily topping six feet, but can be hard to establish. While fescue may produce up to 1.5 tons of grass per acre, a farm in Ozark growing Big Bluestem harvested 5.3 tons per acre in a drought year.

Eric Bailey, state beef Extension specialist, made a presentation on studies at the Southwest Center on whether burning off an old crop as part of pasture management could reduce toxicosis in fescue. Research suggests that burning fields will not damage the ability of fescue to return the next year.

Since seed heads in fescue hold a concentration of the harmful toxin, researchers designed a study to see if burning in March or April would reduce the seed heads. They burned 10 plots of grass in March and 10 in April, then harvested the grass that grew back to measure the Ergovaline.

Test results were not back by the time of Field Day. Bailey expects to see the test extended to a broader area this coming winter. He is optimistic that the strategy will reduce seed head production.

As for cattlemen caught in a drought without the chance to grow another forage, Andy McCorkill, regional livestock specialist with the University of Missouri, provided a handout distributed at drought conferences held throughout the area. He advised culling herds "hard" this fall, eliminating older, poor performing animals and those with negative traits like flightiness, long toes or poor utters.

McCorkill recommended targeted feeding, such as putting spring calvers in one herd and fall calvers in another. To reduce hay waste, he advised strip grazing on a stockpiled pasture, as well as weaning fall calves early, at 150 days, to reduce nutritional requirements and save feed.

"Keep watch over the water source and ensure your herd has plenty," McCorkill said. "Vitamin A tends to be short in drought forages. Additional supplementation in injectable solution may be in order."

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