How to manage the production and use of hay in a drought

Hay yields have drastically declined over the last year or two and much of the blame rests with drought. But there are other contributing factors. Some producers may have increased grazing pressure on hay fields as they gauge the amount of hay stored in their barns. And there has been a decrease in the amount of fertilizer being applied because of cost increases. With drought conditions forecast to continue in 2022, we need to rethink our strategy on conserving forage.

The first strategy that comes to mind is to reduce your herd, so you have fewer mouths to feed. However, the cattle cycle is down because people had been reacting to low cattle prices and previous years’ droughts and liquidated large numbers of livestock.

In a normal year we wouldn’t hesitate to start retaining heifers, grow the cattle herd, have more calves to sell and take advantage of improved prices for weaned calves and yearlings. Just the reward that makes us happy! But as the drought continues, caution must be exercised when it comes to rebuilding your herd. Risk is high during droughts and extra diligence is required. Know your cost of production and understand and plan for feed resources for your livestock.

Planting drought-tolerant forages or forages that fill normal dips in our cool-season forage production curve are great strategies for next year but not much help right now. See Living with droughty pastures for ideas on those.

A good crop yield is necessary to pay for the cost of a custom farmer or your own harvesting. Harvesting one ton per acre wouldn’t pay for the equipment, fuel and operator time. It would be better to graze your own cattle there and purchase hay for them to eat later or rent out that pasture to others. Check out the nice publication by Virginia Cooperative Extension, To Hay or Not to Hay: Hay Cost vs. Grazing Cost.

One thing for certain is you do not want to take cattle off the pasture and feed them hay just so you can make more hay. That just doesn’t make sense, but do keep an eye out for overgrazing. A few bouts of overgrazing can set back hay yields for years to come.

Haying is a management practice to deal with the overabundance of forage on pastures or as a separate business. If you are grazing pastures and think you will have excess, you could make hay for wintertime. Make sure you encourage a good crop yield by leaving an appropriate stubble height (2 to 4 inches depending on forage species) when you take animals off the field (six to eight weeks prior to haying).

Proper stubble height will ensure good root depth and leaf area so the plants can access low water tables and capture ample sunshine for good regrowth. In addition, moisture can be conserved when the ground is sufficiently covered with a good stubble height. See The Western Oregon and Washington Pasture Calendar for more information about plant growth and timing.

Fertilize according to soil test results a good six to eight weeks before you plan to hay. The OSU fertilizer and lime guidelines were developed with research in western Oregon to provide an agronomic-economic application of materials. And, OSU has posted Updated Lime Requirement Recommendations for Oregon.

Don’t sell yourself short by not fertilizing properly. Lime, phosphorus, and potassium are good longer-term investments in your sward and soil, but added nitrogen mostly benefits yields the season it’s applied. If you expect a shortage of irrigation water, you might consider cutting back your nitrogen application. Applying lots of N doesn’t help much when there’s not enough water to grow the crop. Splitting up nitrogen application is a good way to give yourself flexibility as the season progresses.

Weed control may also help with improved yields of quality forage. Identify the weeds, take advantage of early control methods, and follow all withdraw times on the herbicide label.

If you like the number of cows you manage, consider swapping some of your larger cows (and bulls) for medium-framed cows for the commodity market or small-framed cows for grass-finished systems. Larger cows have a higher cost of maintenance requirements and can cost you tons of hay compared with cows of a lower frame score.

Match peak lactation of your cows and ewes to peak forage production. Many cattle producers in Oregon calve in February and March. Peak lactation comes about eight weeks later, so about April and May. This matches the forage peak quite nicely. However, most sheep producers lamb in winter before the grass starts growing well. This means they are feeding hay to lactating ewes during those times.

Less hay and supplements would be needed for maintaining dry ewes if lambing were done in early spring. Then, the grass would be growing well at the same time ewes are lactating. I know this may not fit the grazing of the grass seed fields or grass finishing of lambs very well. But not everyone has those fields to graze or finishes lambs on grass. In this case, lambing later and sending light lambs to the feedlot may be more profitable.

Another forage-saving practice is to wean offspring early. Dry cows and dry ewes have lower nutrient requirements than lactating dams and can be placed on dryer pastures while young growing animals can be kept on the better pastures. The offspring will eat less than the lactating-suckling pairs. Alternatively, these young animals can be sold off earlier than usual.

See more tips on forage management and livestock care during a drought in "Browse Resources" and "Filtering by drought."

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Managing hay production and use in a drought

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