Forages that were subject to drought conditions last year are like athletes returning from the injured list. Even though these plants are starting to grow and turn green, they require careful management to make a comeback this spring.

Drought recovery depends on weed control, soil fertility, and strategic grazing. In a recent article from Oklahoma State University Extension’s Cow-Calf Corner newsletter, Mark Johnson says timing is key when it comes to applying herbicides and fertilizers and opening the gate to the pasture. The beef cattle breeding specialist provides the following advice in these three areas of drought management.

Apply herbicide early. “Drought stress makes the timely application of herbicides critical in order to give the desired plant species the competitive advantage,” Johnson says. “Proper timing of herbicide application depends on the product used. Read product labels to determine proper timing,” he adds.

For example, 2,4-D is a post-emergent broadleaf herbicide, and weeds must be actively growing for this type of product to work. “That being said, apply herbicide for weed control before the weeds have the opportunity to scavenge moisture and soil nutrients,” Johnson asserts.

Split fertilizer applications. Forage will need fertilizer to flourish this summer, especially grass species. Even so, unpredictable rainfall patterns can make it difficult for the soil to take advantage of the added nutrients. Therefore, Johnson suggests splitting fertilizer applications to ensure it will be effective.

“If we typically fertilize our bermudagrass pastures with 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre in early May, this year we will plan on applying 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre at the beginning of May,” he says. “We will monitor growing conditions and rainfall to determine if and when to apply more nitrogen.”

Delay grazing. Don’t let cattle graze forage until it is at least 4 to 8 inches tall. Johnson notes the most palatable plants in previously drought-stressed pastures are especially susceptible to damage if they are overgrazed.

“Resist the temptation of the first signs of green grass and delay grazing as long as your supply of hay and/or supplemental feed permits,” Johnson asserts. “This gives plants a healthy start and will provide cover to bare soils.”

Overall, the goal is to give forage stands that struggled through drought a strong start to the growing season. By controlling weeds, applying fertilizer, and delaying grazing, plants will have a better chance to perform to their potential.

Amber Friedrichsen

Amber Friedrichsen served as the 2021 and 2022 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She currently attends Iowa State University where she is majoring in agricultural communications and agronomy.