August 14, 2002 | By: Laura Skillman

Lack of rainfall in many areas of the state has pastures crunching underfoot and leaving livestock with little forage to graze.

In some areas farmers are beginning to feed grain or set out hay for their cattle in an effort to supplement their diets until rains come and pastures begin to grow again.

"This has been a real interesting year weather wise," said Garry Lacefield, University of Kentucky Extension forage specialist. "We started off extremely wet, and as a result we did not get as many seedings done as we planned. Then, we maintained pretty good pasture and hay growing conditions until about four to six weeks ago. In the last month to six weeks, things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse."

"In addition to not having any rain, we've had the record breaking high temperatures and high humidity," he said. "When you combine those three things, it puts a great stress not only on our plants but on our animals as well. We are certainly concerned about making sure we keep adequate feed before our animals and make sure they have an adequate supply of water. High temperatures mean higher need for water."

Basically, Kentucky is a cool season grass state and these grasses do most of their growth in the spring and fall and have a low period during the summer months depending on rain and temperatures. Cool season grasses such as fescue, bluegrasses and orchardgrasses are very unproductive now and in many cases brown.

These grasses are not dead and will come back with moisture and moderate temperatures.

"During this period where cool season grasses are unproductive we've got to rely on other things, and a lot of people don't have other things," Lacefield said.

If those pastures have some deep-rooted clover or alfalfa or lespedeza, then those have provided some adequate grazing. Another place where some farmers have turned is to warm season annuals or perennial grasses that grow well in the summer, such as millets, sudan grasses, or sorghum-sudan. A number of producers also have small amounts of bermudagrass or native warm season grasses such as switchgrass that can provide needed nutrition when cool season grasses are unproductive.

"Basically, we need to evaluate where we are at - what do we have available in our pastures," Lacefield said. "When our pastures are insufficient to meet our needs we don't want to let our animals get into greater stress by being malnourished, so we need to feed some kind of supplemental feed."

"We are always reluctant to bring hay in, but I'd rather not abuse my pastures more than necessary if I could bring some hay in to get them through this temporary period," he said.
"I'd be optimistic that we've already seen a drop in temperatures from the 100 degree days and that has been a tremendous help and hopefully we will begin getting some moisture," he said. "It is amazing how quick things can turn around. With lower temperatures and some moisture, we are going to see a resurgence in our cool season grasses and that will mean a whole lot to us."

Lacefield recommended that if fields do get some moisture soon, a light application of nitrogen could be applied to grass dominated fields to promote growth.

This will allow farmers to stockpile some of their pasture and extend the grazing season. The longer a farmer can graze cattle and the less hay that has to be fed, the cheaper it is to winter the animals.

Farmers also need to be aware that the potential is higher under current conditions for nitrate poisoning and it could occur in some plants.

"We've measured a lot of nitrates in some of our drought stressed and late planted corn as well as some of the warm season grasses such as sudex and millets," he said. "If you are going to put corn up as silage generally, you can reduce the nitrate levels during the ensiling process, but I always recommend that if a farmer is in doubt to have it tested."

If a farmer is going to graze some of these fields, then have the fields tested before turning the animals into the fields.

There is information available on nitrate poisoning at county offices of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Testing kits will also be available in many county offices, as well as various labs across the state.

Additional weed poisoning in cattle can also occur when animals are spending more time in the woods with little pasture to eat, or are turned into areas where they do not usually graze. One example would be acorn poisoning.

"We want to be cautious of what we are doing," Lacefield said.


Garry Lacefield, 270-365-7541