Anyone in the Southern Plains eyeballing the recent blush of green in pastures due to some fall rains can be forgiven for wanting to re-stock sooner than later. But Daren Redfearn, Oklahoma State University Extension forage and management specialist, points out that while rainfall will dramatically improve winter pastures and early spring forage production, the degree of recovery of many summer pastures remains unknown.
According to Redfearn, it's difficult to estimate how long it will take drought-damaged summer pastures to recover, in part because lingering drought effects won't disappear immediately with the onset of recent, more typical precipitation patterns.
"Since long-term drought recovery isn't common, there's no good rule of thumb to follow," Redfearn explains. "It could take several years for many pastures to fully recover. This is especially true if drought conditions continue, as some weather experts have predicted."
Redfearn says past grazing and management practices will determine the extent of damage that's occurred from the drought.
"Most pastures have been used heavily for two consecutive summers," Redfearn says. "Some pastures were harvested for hay later than normal or grazed later than normal with little or no opportunity for fall regrowth. An additional complication is that some pastures weren't well fertilized, if at all, because of the drought."
Given the uncertainty relative to summer pasture resources, Redfearn recommends producers develop a strategy to speed pasture recovery and take advantage of the grass growth that occurs.
One key component of such a strategy is avoiding the temptation to begin grazing as soon as plants start their spring growth.
Overgrazing, coupled with severe removal of top growth, develops plants with shallow root systems, Redfearn explains.
"Ideally, spring and summer grazing on pastures that were grazed heavily should not begin until the plants have 4-5 weeks of growth," Redfearn says.
Grass growth and production dramatically decrease during a drought, with shallow-rooted plants affected sooner and to a greater degree than more deeply rooted plants. Redfearn explains that vigorous, deep-rooted plants are less dependent on frequent precipitation than shallow-rooted ones.
"Even though it can be tempting to begin grazing as soon as pastures start to grow following a drought, grazing drought-ravaged pastures too soon can further weaken the plants, which potentially can further damage the stand," Redfearn says.
"Proper management is the best long-term approach to recovery," Redfearn emphasizes. "Most importantly, a modest level of fertilization and possibly some weed control will be required to control competition and allow forage plants a chance to develop."