Recommendations from area growers on dealing with fescue and the effects of last summer's heat and drought provided the main topics for the 88th annual Lawrence County Soils and Crops Conference, held recently at the University of Missouri's Southwest Research State near Mt. Vernon.
Tim Schnakenberg, agronomy specialist and conference chairman, said more than 90 people attended the event. Surveys showed significant interest in what to do with fields in light of weather conditions.
In 2011, the area experienced one of the hottest summers in 75 years, Schnakenberg said. Rainfall during the summer fell around five inches short of the average, weakening many stands of grazing grasses. Consequently, many ranchers ended up with a shortage of stockpiled hay or less in the field.
A major priority for animal producers in 2012 will be reviving their pastures. Schnakenberg said in emergency situations, ranchers can plant spring oats in February to get some plant cover on the ground. He recommended thickening pastures with permanent cover by planting lespedeza, clover or a summer grass like crabgrass in the spring.
To establish fescue fields, fall planting is recommended. Schnakenberg said fescue can be sewn in the spring if done in a timely manner. Fescue not well established by the time hot dry weather sets in can become overrun by weeds. With fields thinned, he said this could be a good opportunity to kill off the old fescue and plant a variety without the harmful endophyte fungus.
Ranchers may consider switching to a warm season pasture grass like crabgrass or Bermudagrass, or plant fescue in the fall, he said.
Dealing with the harmful endophyte provided a major discussion point for the conference. Schnakenberg provided dairy specialist Tony Rickard's report on the dairy operation at the Southwest Research Center, where the opinion on forages has shifted.
When the dairy was started in 1999, one group of cows grazed on Kentucky 31 fescue, which contains the harmful entophyte, and another grazed on an endophyte-free fescue. Milk production was five gallons per day per cow greater in those eating grass without the endophyte.
Dairy specialists knew immediately they had to get away from the endophyte, Rickard reported. They tried raising corn as an alternative, then blue stem grass and perennial rye grass last year. Milk production on the rye grass surpassed the grazing on fescue with a novel, non-harmful fescue, but rye fields tend to die out in three years.
At the present time, the Research Center's pasture is 60 percent cool season grasses, mostly of fescue with a non-harmful endophyte. The rest of the pastures have a warm season grass, like crabgrass. Schnakenberg said the dairy specialists are still trying to find the best, resilient combination of grasses for milk production.
Dealing with endophyte
More details about what works locally came from two local grass producers, Curtis Schallert, of rural Purdy, and Darrel Franson, whose farm is located east of Mt. Vernon.
Schallert provided details on the fescue with a non-harmful endophyte that he has been using in fescue seed production.
Franson reported weaning weights on his calves, a key to successful breeding, back to the 1990s. He attributed higher weights in part to good breeding and partly to eliminating his Kentucky 31 fescue in 2002, converting to a fescue without the harmful endophyte.
In 2010, Franson rented a neighbor's field of around 30 acres for additional pasture. The rented field had Kentucky 31 on it. Franson showed pictures of how cattle who had done fine on his pastures developed serious circulation problems on the harmful endophyte.
Round bale silage
Mike Collins, interim director at the Southwest Center and the director of the plant science division at the University of Missouri in Columbia, talked about converting hay inventories to round bale silage. Collins said operations have to be large enough to afford the round baling equipment.
The successful round bale strategy involves cutting fields and harvesting quickly. The longer cut grass and legumes lie in the field, the more likely they are to get rained upon, to bake in the sun or have leaves shatter.
Grasses should be collected and packaged at 50 to 65 percent moisture content. Collins recommended wrapping the bales in at least four layers of plastic film, Bales should be checked over time for holes in the plastic, which need to be repaired.
Sealed bales over time will ferment and turn into very nutritious silage. Alfalfa and clover will take longer to become silage than grasses, Collins said. If bales are packed at a maximum density, acidity levels inside will drop rapidly, encouraging fermentation.
Well wrapped bales can retain their food quality for up to two years. Collins recommended feeding the bales to animals within a year to get the maximum food value.
County budget update
Lawrence County Presiding Commissioner Sam Goodman provided an update on the county government at the conference. He was pleased to report Lady Justice was back on the dome of the historic courthouse after maintenance work.
Goodman anticipated a very conservative county budget in 2012. He felt there was generally a good understanding among the office holders as to what to expect in the coming year. Revenues based on sales taxes remain hard to predict.
The Soils and Crops Conference is sponsored by the Lawrence County Extension Council, the University of missouri Extention Service and the Lawrence County Commission.
The Barry County Soils and Crops Conference will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 9 at the Butterfield Community Center.