2019 Oklahoma Grazing Preview

There’s encouraging news for cattle producers in northwest Oklahoma regarding native grass, small grains pasture and areas recovering from last year’s wildfire.

In northwest Oklahoma, this past El Niño winter and early spring have brought very good soil moisture leading to excellent conditions for forage growth.  This is encouraging news because for the first time in a number of years, very little drought is present across Oklahoma.  In fact, parts of the state have been too wet.

Percent of Average Precipitation Since October 1

Evaporative Demand Since January

“However, the fluctuating heat has led to delays in native grass growth so we’re about two weeks behind, which may delay ranchers putting cattle out on native grasses,” said Dana Zook, Northwest Area Livestock Specialist; Oklahoma Cooperative Extension based in Enid, Oklahoma.

In addition, ample moisture has allowed small grains forage such as wheat, rye, and triticale to have tremendous growth this spring, giving cattle producers additional spring grazing opportunities. “Producers who choose to graze their small grains rather than take them to grain harvest, have an option to bridge the forage gap in areas of slow native pasture growth. Small grains forage are an excellent nutrient source for all stages of cattle; given some precautions of bloat and appropriate mineral intake,” said Zook, adding, “Luckily, delays in turn-out on native pastures can be made up with some   graze-out opportunities if available.”

Much Too Early Map of Areas Greening Up Based on Satellite Imagery

The below map is from the MODIS Terra Satellite and the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index or NDVI.  The average value was taken between March 28 and April 26, 2019 compared to the entire data set from 2002 to present for March – April.

Areas affected by last year’s widespread wildfires are also benefiting from plentiful moisture. “Weed growth is present in areas that were significantly burned, but producers are encouraged by native grasses fighting their way back,” Zook said.  She noted that re-establishment of native grass communities will take some time, and that grazing areas are expected to return in many ways, better than before.
Regarding the weather conditions, timely rains over the current water year (Oct. 1, 2018 to current) have kept any significant coverage of drought and even abnormally dry conditions to a minimum according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

“Most areas of the state are from near normal to as much as 10 inches above normal since Oct. 1, 2018.  When a problem area does seem to pop up, beneficial moisture tends to alleviate those conditions eventually. It has helped that our region has seen cooler than normal conditions as well, resulting in diminished water stress on the soils and surface water when dry spells did arise,” said Gary McManus, State Climatologist; Oklahoma Mesonet and Oklahoma Climatological Survey. 

However, McManus said, that for Oklahoma – this El Niño has been fairly weak and late arriving.  “So, that suggests some other factor at play for Oklahoma’s wet, cool winter and early spring,” concluded McManus.

For warm-season pastures, Alex Caldeira Rocateli, PhD., Forage Systems Extension Specialist and Assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University said, “in Oklahoma, bermudagrass is our main warm-season pasture; however significant acreage of alfalfa is harvested from spring to late summer.”  “Last year, low rainfall during summer decreased warm-season forage yields, and high rainfall during early fall impacted hay curing and bailing during last cuts. Therefore, the state experienced a shortage of hay during winter months, but this year, excessive rainfall was observed during early spring resulting in soil soggy conditions in winter-wheat pastures. Under this condition, wheat fields under grazing were prone to soil compaction,” said Rocateli.

The recent increase in temperatures is leading warm-season grasses to green up. Soil moisture is currently high, and good forage production is expected from warm-season pastures during late spring and early summer.  “Fertilization might be a good strategy to optimize forage production under the current favorable soil water condition,” Rocateli suggested.

As Zook put it, with patience, things will get better. “You may have heard, [the expression] that ‘Mother Nature will cover the ground,’ she said.  “It will take some time for those native grasses to recover.”

As mostly wet as this spring has been there is an area in the OK Panhandle that has recently started to trend dry.  The below map shows the number of days since at least 0.25″ of precipitation has been observed.  Areas in the Panhandle are going on 50 days or more since they’ve seen significant moisture.  Once the hot temperatures kick in, they’re going to need every inch.  It’s an areas that bears watching.

That completes our check-in on Oklahoma.  Keep checking back as we continue to update our grazing previews across cattle country.

Number of Days Since Significant Precipitation has been Observed

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