Dried-Out Pastures Need Some TLC

Reassess Stocking Rates and Fertilizer Applications Post-Drought

When too much hay is needed to carry the herd through winter, it may be time to lower stocking rates. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Becky Mills)

When the rain finally comes and a little green starts to color up those droughty pastures, the temptation is going to be there to add numbers back to the cow herd.

But before pulling the trigger on herd expansion, consider how much damage forages have endured. Then ask whether you can afford to carry those extra animals now if the rains don't keep falling and grazing continues to be limited.


Noble Research Institute has some good advice on the issue. First, they noted that overstocked and overgrazing are not the same thing in a report from Hugh Aljoe, director of ranches, outreach and partnerships for the organization. Aljoe manages a 3,000-acre cattle operation in Texas.

In "Try This Simple Stocking Rate Assessment as You Begin Regenerative Ranching," Aljoe and other specialists with Noble, shared information that makes it clear that "overstocked" means carrying more livestock than the land can sustain. "Overgrazing," on the other hand, is about the plants and how repeated grazing of those plants before they can fully recover affects their productivity. Producers can both overstock and overgraze.

As a rule of thumb, the report shared a simple way to evaluate the question of whether an operation is overstocked. Look at how much feeding has to take place. "Hay feeding to increase carrying capacity means a producer is supplying forage, usually purchased, to substitute for the lack of enough natural forage production on the ranch," the article explained.

The Noble specialists said that for every month of fed hay above what is planned, they estimate a ranch is overstocked by at least 8.3%. The same 8.3% overstock number applies if livestock are truly having to hunt for that next bite of forage.

A ranch correctly stocked is one where there is enough grazeable forage at the end of the growing season to last until spring green-up. Using hay, especially for Southern producers, wrote Noble's specialists, is usually an expensive way of increasing carrying capacity.


For pasture that endured a short-term drought, a nitrogen application at 25 to 40 pounds per acre in the South is a common recommendation. But where drought has lasted more than three months, specialists at Mississippi State University (MSU) recommend waiting on the fertilizer until moisture conditions improve.

Rocky Lemus, Extension specialist for forage establishment, grazing systems, and management at MSU, said that during drought, he doesn't recommend fertilizer applications. A soil test is important to identify nutrients lacking, and then only apply those when soil moisture is adequate to maintain their availability in solution and increase root nutrient uptake. Applying products like urea, or urea ammonium nitrate, to stressed plants, under hot, dry conditions, can burn tissue and delay plant recovery from stress. And as nitrates build in plants, the likelihood of nitrate poisoning of livestock also increases.

Like the specialists at Noble, Lemus said droughts necessitate a careful evaluation of stocking rates.

"Using the correct stocking rate is the best way to protect your pastures, your animals, and your wallet," Lemus noted. "Rotational stocking can improve harvest efficiency and forages during drought. During a drought, you cannot allow livestock to spot graze or trample and waste forage. Subdividing pastures with portable electric fences is cost-effective."

He concluded that during droughts, producers stocked at maximum capacity are often forced to reduce herd size. To avoid what he calls a "stocking rate roller coaster" Lemus advises maintaining livestock numbers at around 75% of an operation's long-term (more than 10 years) carrying capacity.

To read more:

Noble Research Institute: https://www.noble.org/…

Mississippi State University Extension: http://extension.msstate.edu/…