Much of Kentucky has been behind on rainfall since spring began, but the drought has been exceptional in Western Kentucky with some cities 8 and 9 inches below normal rainfall totals. With some of the state's historically driest months ahead, good pasture management is critical for livestock producers, said forage extension specialists from the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture.
One of the easiest things producers can do to ensure their animals get the most use out of their forages is to practice rotational grazing. In a rotational grazing system livestock graze in one area for a limited time before being moved to another area. This gives forages time to recover from grazing and ensures the animals use a greater percentage of the available forage.
"During a drought we can't afford to waste pasture, and rotational grazing permits us to use more of what we grow and waste less," said Garry Lacefield, UK forage extension specialist.
Many of Kentucky's pastures are full of cool-season grasses including tall fescue, orchardgrass, and Kentucky bluegrass. These pastures are the least productive during hot, dry weather. If producers install some warm-season perennial grass pastures into their rotational grazing system, it can help ensure their livestock have quality forages during the summer months. While it might be too late to install these grasses this year, producers might want to consider establishing them in the future.
Another option for producers is to incorporate pastures containing alfalfa or alfalfa-grass mixes into their grazing system. Alfalfa tends to have a deep root system, which makes it more drought-tolerant than other cool-season legumes and grasses, and alfalfa will continue to produce while other cool-season grasses go dormant during periods of extreme drought, Lacefield said.
According to Bob Coleman, PhD, PAS, associate director for undergraduate education in equine science and management and extension horse specialist, a warm-season option includes Bermuda grass for pastures in areas of the state where Bermuda grass will grow.
Additionally, Coleman recommends horse owners remove horses from pastures when grass has been grazed to a height of 4 inches. If regrowth doesn't reoccur in 21-28 days, he recommends horse owners designate a drylot or sacrifice area to feed horses in until the pastures recover to 8 inches or more. While the sacrifice area sacrifice might not recover this growing season, it should be a small area for horse owners to renovate in the fall.
UK extension publications on rotational grazing, summer annuals, and extending the grazing season are available under the publications section on the UK forage website.
Katie Pratt is an agricultural communications specialist within UK's College of Agriculture. Bob Coleman, PhD, PAS, is associate director for undergraduate education in equine science and management and extension horse specialist.
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Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.