Hot, dry summers can have cattle producers scrambling for feed, but warm-season grasses could cut down on hay purchases.
Grasses such as switchgrass and big bluestem thrive in hot weather, says Aaron Saeugling, Extension forage agronomist with Iowa State University based in southwest Iowa.
He says while drought conditions over the past year have some looking at incorporating warm-season grasses into their grazing program, it takes time for the grass to become established.
“You need to plan ahead because those grasses are going to need a year to get going and before they can be grazed,” Saeugling says. “Can you afford to not use that pasture this year?”
He says the grass needs to be about 24 inches tall before it can be grazed. New stands should not be cut and baled the first year, although clipping weeds might be beneficial.
Saeugling says switchgrass will be ready in late June, with a grass like big bluestem ready for grazing later in the summer.
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ISU research indicates the best growth occurs from June through September, then slows down in the fall and stop after the first killing frost.
The research suggests the best results could occur when one-fourth to one-third of cool-season pastures are converted to warm-season pastures that can be used along with cool-season pastures.
This system also allows cool-season grasses to rest in mid-summer, boosting the supply of forage in late summer and fall.
Producers need to be willing to make a management commitment.
“You have to rotateally graze it to make it work effectively,” Saeugling says. “If you can’t, it’s probably not for you.”
There is other prep work to be done prior to planting a seed, says Dale Blasi, Extension beef specialist with Kansas State University. Soil should be sampled to determine nutrient needs.
Forage quality can deteriorate quickly if the grass is allowed to mature, he says.
Using summer annuals may also be an option.
“Those grasses are usually pretty drought-resistant,” Blasi says.
Producers need to be keen about over-grazing or cutting the stands too severely when haying.
“You want to be cognizant of the growing point,” he says.
Nitrate toxicity can also be an issue, Blasi adds.
Stocking rates should be determined ahead of time. Blasi says that rate may depend not only on cow numbers, but also soil quality and environmental conditions.
“In Iowa, for example, there is good, deep soil that could handle a stocking rate of 2.5 to 3 animal units per acre,” he says.
Fertilizer needs should also be assessed prior to seeding.
“Commercial fertilizer is pretty expensive at the moment,” Blasi says. “You don’t want to use more than you’ll need to get that grass going.”