Pasture grasses sprout early; 2016 drought can still hurt

Published 10:03 am Monday, April 24, 2017

STARKVILLE (AP) — A Mississippi State University Extension Service forage specialist says a warm winter and spring rains have sprouted pasture grasses early, but last year’s drought can affect both forage production and hay acreage.

Rocky Lemus says bermudagrass and bahiagrass have sprouted at least two weeks before normal across the state. He says this will allow early grazing and possibly early production.

But he says it’s important to act now to control weeds and repair drought damage from last year.

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“Because of the mild winter, we also have seen an increase in winter weed pressure,” he said in a news release. “Controlling those weeds, along with taking a soil sample to determine nutrient management recommendations that will aid pasture recovery after the drought, is very important.”

Many Mississippi farmers overgraze their fields and fail to test for and use fertilizer, he said in a phone interview.

Lemus says the drought hurt the grasses’ root systems. He says that could both hurt this year’s production and give weeds a better chance than usual.

He says that stand losses and hay field renovations are likely to drive bermudagrass production down 10 percent — from 770,000 acres, and hay acreage about 8 percent, from 750,000 acres last year to about 690,000 this year.

He says bahiagrass has a stronger root system than bermudagrass, so it may see a smaller drop of 5 to 6 percent from last year’s 900,000 acres.

“Now is a good time to walk your pastures and hay fields, determine stand losses, and develop a management plan that could help with pasture renovation or pasture restoration,” he said. “Growers who have planted annual ryegrass into a bermudagrass or bahiagrass sod for winter grazing should put a heavy grazing pressure this time of year to open that canopy and allow the release of the summer grasses.”

Renovating pastures is expensive, said Brett Rushing, Extension and research professor at the MSU Coastal Plain Branch Experiment Station in Newton.

Fertilization comes first, he said. Then comes planting.

“Unfortunately, seed costs for a lot of warm-season grasses this year are very high,” he said. “Production was limited due to last year’s drought, so supplies are short.”

Producers can consider warm-season annuals such as millet, crabgrass and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids as quick grazing forage, planting a cool-season annual after those pastures are grazed out, he said.

Rushing said forecasts indicate a hot summer, which will increase the chance of outbreaks of the armyworms, the No. 1 pest for Mississippi forage. The grasses’ early sprouting could also bring infestations earlier than usual, he said.

“There is a forecast of possible drought conditions this summer, so growers need to start thinking about contingency plans to maintain forage productivity,” Lemus said. “Those will include fertilization, rotating pastures, providing rest and sometimes evaluating livestock inventory. Pasture rest and recovery is an important component of a grazing system, and overgrazing can lead to stand loss, greater weed competition and economic losses.”