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The Seasons Are A-Changin’

June 3, 2010

I was born about 10 years too late to be a hippie. Heck, I was only 6 years old during the Summer of Love–I started first grade at the end of August that year. But for some reason, I have always loved the music of that time: Dylan; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Buffalo Springfield; and CCR (yeah, I like Cross Canadian Ragweed, too!). When I tool around on the pastures on my 4-wheeler this time of year, the old Dylan song goes ’round in my head, “The times they are a-changin’.”

May is a transition month for grazing in Oklahoma. The transition may occur the first week of May, like last year, or it may happen at the end of May as it did this year. From September/ October to May, cool season forbs and grasses flourish. These are the most nutritious and palatable plants for grazing: fescue, clover, rye, and vetch love it when the nighttime temps are cool, and the daytime temps stay below 85°. Last year, we had an unusual warmup in mid-April, causing plants to bloom early, then a hard freeze the last week of that month (no peaches for you!), and then temps rose again through May. All in all, they were not the best weather conditions for grazing or setting fruit. This year was 180° opposite: wet cold winter into a long, cool, wet, spring. How many times did we even break 85° before the 20th of May? [Answer: once] As a result, we couldn’t graze the grass fast enough. And when the fescue finally bolted, it put out *huge* seed heads on 3-foot-long stalks, and kept right on tillering (growing new shoots) at the base. Primo. Sweet.

Now we’ve had two pretty warm weeks, and we are well into a hot one, with a miserable weekend looming. The pasture has changed, almost overnight it seems. All of that lush greenery of early last month is wilting away in the heat, making way for warm season plants to flourish.

What was all green 3 weeks ago is now starting to brown and fade

In the picture above, notice how the stalks are mostly empty–no seedheads. Why? Well, because the sheep eat them! Let me explain about the fescue that grows here.

The pros:

  • Perennial
  • Drought-tolerant
  • Tough–comes back well from hard grazing
  • Highly palatable and nutritious

The cons:

  • Endophyte-infected

That’s it, only one negative. What’s an endophyte, you ask? Basically, it’s a fungus that has a symbiotic relationship with the plant. One of the reasons fescue is so ‘tough’ is because the fungus protects the plant from insect attack and overgrazing. The endophyte is supposed to sicken the sheep if it makes up too large a portion of their diet.  All of the ‘old’ varieties of fescue, such as KY-31, are endophyte-infected. There have been endophyte-free, newer varieties released, but they don’t yield or persist near as well as good ol’ KY-31. Some of the potential effects are stillbirths (nope, none this year or last), bad feet due to constriction in the blood vessels (only one case of foot rot, and that was months ago), and intolerance to heat (to date, none of the girls have tried to head north for the summer, nor even west to join those fake California cows). I actually think we forgot to tell the sheep that fescue is supposed to make them sick, because they *love* it! In fact, they are doing their part to spread it around, because they snap off the seed heads and, uh, ‘plant’ them when they poop 🙂

So, now that the fescue is stopping growth, what are the sheep going to eat?

Weeds or feed? Looks like it *was* feed.

I’m already seeing some warm season grasses kicking into gear: johnson grass, purple top, and bermuda are really emerging in the recently grazed areas, now that the fescue isn’t shading them out. Sericea lespedeza is booming, and unlike cattle farmers who hate the stuff, I love it, because recent studies have indicated that it has a detrimental effect on internal parasites. Other forbs preferred by the sheep (and hated by cattle farmers) are hop hornbeam copperleaf (in the spurge family and the coolest plant name ever), Palmer amaranth (pigweed), giant and common ragweed, and thistle. I’ll share more pics and insight on weed vs. feed later this week. For the sheep, it’s all good right now. Yes, a bunch of their cool season forage is past prime, and they have to work a little harder to find the stuff they like, but they can choose from high fiber overmature grasses or green, growing warm season forbs, depending on their mood and their biological needs at the time. And yes, they trample a bunch of their pasture now, but eventually, all that trampling just helps the composting action of the soil microbes.

You say stubble, I say compost. See the bit of hop clover there? It will remain all summer and then take off again in the fall.

The biggest challenge of summer isn’t forage-related, it’s making sure that all the sheep have access to shade. I’ve got some new shelter pics to post later this week also. Until then, try to stay cool, ok?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2010 7:42 am

    Hot and desolate – yep, it’s summer in Oklahoma. Humidity is inching up too.
    I’m curious about your sheep shelters.

  2. June 4, 2010 4:27 pm

    Great post Nanc. The OSU extension office couldn’t have written this any better.

  3. June 5, 2010 4:27 pm

    Denise, I’ll post some pics on those soon.

    Stephen, I’ll take your comment as high praise since I’m an alum of that fine institution of higher learning 🙂 You’ll have to let me know if the UGA extension folks will agree with my characterization of pigweed (to come next week). 😀

  4. June 5, 2010 5:17 pm

    Nanc, the UGA extension people will be excited to find someone that can even spell pigweed, so you’ll be in tall cotton with those folks!

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