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State's hay, pastures battle rains, drought
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi’s 2.1 million acres in forage production have struggled from one extreme to the other, and farmers are hoping for a little help from Mother Nature to produce an adequate 2009 crop.
Rocky Lemus, forage specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said pastures and hay fields are just passing the midway point in the growing season.
“North Mississippi’s forages are doing OK in yields and quality,” he said. “Rains in central Mississippi have increased yields, but they have hurt the quality of hay harvested so far. The southwest portion of the state has had a severe drought, and producers need more rain to prevent a hay shortage this winter. Some cattle producers already have had to provide supplemental hay in pastures where there is a shortage of grass.”
Lemus warned that poor forage production could result in overgrazed pastures.
“This could cause animal health issues, since they can be more prone to parasites in the soil, and overgrazing will open the opportunity for more weed competition,” he said.
Rankin County Extension Director Houston Therrell serves Mississippi as the southwest district forage agent. He said about 50 percent to 75 percent of the livestock producers in his area are feeding supplemental hay from last year’s carryover.
“The excessive rains earlier in the growing season caused plants to develop shallow root systems. Then the rains stopped and the extremely hot days really hurt the plants,” Therrell said. “We went from too wet to too dry too fast.”
Therrell said the rain gauge at his home in Brandon collected only one-tenth of an inch in June. From a positive standpoint, results from a recent forage sample revealed excellent quality in hay produced locally.
“We’re approaching a critical period now with the second cutting coming on,” Therrell said. “Timely rains will be the key to having good supplies going into the winter.”
Lemus said a couple of factors are contributing to an overall decline in hay production across the state.
“The number of people in the cattle business has been decreasing in recent years. Surveys reveal a 208,000 decline in the number of cattle from 1997 to 2007, and numbers have declined even more since then,” he said. “Another factor working against forage production is the increased cost of fertilizer.”
Lemus recommended that if producers are going to fertilize pastures, they should wait several days after a rain to give plants time to recover from drought stress. Grasses also will respond to the fertilizers better when they are not stressed. Waiting for applications also reduces possible fertilizer losses, especially from nitrogen leaching and volatilization.
Lemus said producers need to pay extra attention to fertility needs in pastures based on soil tests as well as forage test results to make sure animals have proper nutrition. County Extension offices can help producers with all the necessary tests.