Texas Field Reports: Hay Producers Should Hold Fertilizer Until Temps Rise

Photo: Gerald Evers, Texas AgriLife Extension

Warm-season grasses are breaking dormancy but not actively growing yet in many parts of the state, so producers should hold the fertilizer, said a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert. 

Dr. Vanessa Corriher-Olson, AgriLife Extension forage specialist, Overton, said despite warm days, including temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s, nighttime and soil temperatures drive warm-season grass growth. Fertilizer applications before grasses begin actively growing will only serve cool-season grasses, legumes and weeds in pastures and hay meadows.

Warm-season perennial grasses, including Bahia grass or Bermuda grass, green up when nighttime temperatures remain above 60 degrees for several days and when soil temperatures reach 65 degrees at the 4-inch depth, she said.

“We’ve had warm, sunny days and soon may reach into the 80s again, and that can cause producers to jump the gun,” she said. “They think, well it’s 80 degrees … Bermuda grass should be growing, and they want to beat the rush for fertilizer, but they’re not thinking about the nighttime temperatures.”

AgriLife Extension reporters noted long lines for fertilizer at co-ops near College Station in recent weeks. Corriher-Olson said she’d heard some producers fertilized hay fields as early as March.

Corriher-Olson said there are no magic dates for specific locations and that producers should watch for consistent appropriate nighttime and soil temperatures before fertilizing warm-season grasses.

Producers can consider fertilizer options and prepare for applications by taking soil samples as they wait for temperatures to warm, she said.

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Dr. Steven Klose, AgriLife Extension economist, College Station, said fertilizer prices have been more stable the last few years after several years of volatility due to grain and natural gas prices. He said fertilizer production had shifted abroad and producers were left with inconsistent import prices, but domestic production capacity is returning.

“The general environment of the market was leading some producers to maybe hold out for lower prices if they weren’t up against a deadline,” Klose said. “There is some seasonality to prices still, but not like there was four, five and six years ago.”

Corriher-Olson said prices on nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in East Texas were averaging around 50 cents per pound, 55 cents per pound and 30 cents per pound, respectively.

“There is not much that can be done about the cost of fertilizer, but there is much we can do regarding how efficiently we use fertilizer,” Corriher-Olson said. “A soil test is the first step in efficient fertilizer use and improved forage production.”

Samples should be collected annually for hay meadows and every two to three years for pastures, she said. For soil test forms and bags, contact local AgriLife Extension offices or visit here.

Corriher-Olson said nitrogen is typically the most vital nutrient for optimum growth in Bermuda grass. Nitrogen deficiencies can cause plants to appear pale green with very poor growth, yield and low protein.

The optimum nitrogen rate is dependent on the producer’s goal for individual fields, she said. To learn more about nitrogen sources, go here.

Bermuda grass removes relatively large amounts of phosphate and potash when harvested for hay, Corriher-Olson said. Bermuda grass hay removes 14 pounds of phosphate and 42 pounds of potash per ton of hay.

Phosphorous is vital for plants to develop healthy root systems and optimum yields. Bermuda grass can be a luxury consumer of potassium, which means plants will take in more than they need if abundant supplies exist, but it is essential for plants to combat disease and aids water translocation. Potassium deficiencies can cause stand and yield losses.

“If soil test recommendations call for more than 100 pounds of potassium per acre, the recommendation is to make split applications throughout the season because plants will take in more than they need otherwise,” she said.

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

CENTRAL: Frost in some areas knocked Bermuda grass back. High winds made it hard for pecan growers to apply zinc. High winds were drying topsoil. Pasture grasses were improving due to warmer weather. Ranchers were applying fertilizer and herbicides in some areas. Lots of field work was taking place. Most sorghum was planted.

Cold weather delayed cotton planting, but was expected to begin as soon as temperatures rise. Fly numbers on cattle and livestock were increasing. Most counties reported good soil moisture, but conditions were beginning to dry. Cattle remained in good condition, but stock tanks could use some runoff. Overall crop, rangeland and pasture conditions were good in nearly all counties.

ROLLING PLAINS: Weather was warm, windy and dry. Counties were under fire watches due to extremely high winds. Winter wheat was maturing rapidly. Wheat fields were scouted for damage due to freezing temperatures, but no significant damage was found. Dryland and irrigated fields were examined and showing above-average yield potential, however, without rain, the dryland fields were likely done.

More fields were expected to be scouted as some farmers were opting to harvest acres for grain and buy wheat hay due to expected excess of wheat hay in the area. Sorghum planting started, and a few acres of corn were being planted or were in early growth stages. Cattle continued to graze out wheat pasture, and gains were excellent.

Cotton farmers were not plowing up their stalks because they were trying to reduce blowing sand and dirt. Pastures had some grass coming up but still not enough to graze without supplementing cake. Spring calving was still ongoing.

COASTAL BEND: Thunderstorms brought some welcomed rainfall. Windy conditions decreased topsoil moisture. Some cotton acres were not planted. Numerous producers had to replant grain sorghum and cotton. Rice was still being planted and pecans were starting to bloom. Herbicide and fertilizer applications continued in hay pastures. Livestock were doing well.

EAST: Excessive rainfall paired with turbulent winds caused downed power lines and trees throughout the district. Jasper County reported 9 inches of rain. Temperatures continued to be moderate during the day and near freezing at night. Producers reported the large swings in temperatures hurt Bermuda grass growth in Henderson and Smith counties.

Smith County reported some producers were cutting ryegrass for hay. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good with Marion County reporting excellent conditions. Marion County reported not all producers had planted gardens due to the cold nights. Subsoil conditions were adequate throughout the district. Topsoil conditions were adequate with the exception of Marion County, which reported surplus moisture.

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Jasper County reported 100 percent of corn was planted with none emerged. Gregg County reported peach trees were making good growth. Cattle prices were up slightly with numbers on average in Gregg and Cherokee counties, while Shelby County reported good numbers but a drop in prices. Livestock were all reported in good body condition with some supplementation taking place in Trinity and Wood counties.

Wild pig damages were reported by producers and home owners in Cherokee, Henderson, Shelby, Trinity and Wood counties. Henderson and Houston counties both reported concerns about high fly numbers.

SOUTH PLAINS: Subsoil and topsoil moisture levels were very low. A lack of rain and windy conditions stressed pastures, rangeland and winter wheat. Fire danger was present.  Wheat looked OK despite dry conditions. Producers continued preparing fields for spring planting. Pastures were in very poor condition, and producers were having to ship cows to different states for better grazing. Rain was needed for all aspects of agriculture.

PANHANDLE: Conditions were extremely dry and windy. Moisture was needed throughout the district. Soil moisture was very short. Wildfire risks remained high. Dallam and Hartley counties were very windy during the last half of the reporting period but received trace amounts of rainfall. Irrigated wheat made some growth progress but irrigation remained very active. Producers were getting ready to plant corn.

Supplemental feeding of cattle was very active. Rangelands were dormant and will remain so until rain arrives. In Deaf Smith County, 30-50 mph winds, higher temperatures and range fires were the norm. Wheat fields declined. Some winter wheat was irrigated in an attempt to make a decent seed crop this summer. Dryland wheat was holding on but with the warm temperatures it was trying to grow on no soil moisture. Summer planted crops were on hold as producers wait for rain.

NORTH: Topsoil and subsoil moisture levels were mostly adequate across the counties. Rains of 1-1.5 inches arrived with windy conditions and below-average day and nighttime temperatures. Most corn farmers finished planting with about 60-70 percent emerged. A freeze should not have damaged any of the corn, but wheat and young soybean plants may be damaged, depending on how cold it got in specific locations.

Cotton farmers were starting to plant with around 10-20 percent completed. Winter grasses were looking better in pastures, but improved pastures were hit hard by the freeze. Cattle looked good, and ranchers were nearing the end of feeding hay and supplements as most pastures greened up and were growing.

FAR WEST: Temperatures ranged with highs in the mid-90s and lows in the 40s. Conditions were dry and windy with high fire danger. Grass was showing no improvements. Winds harmed trees, which required additional watering. The region was in dire need of moisture. Cotton was planted. Pecan orchards and alfalfa fields were irrigated. Corn planting was finished, and sorghum planting was progressing. Watermelon planting also began. Producers were planning on worming livestock.

WEST CENTRAL: A cold front arrived early in the reporting period, followed by warm, dry conditions. A late freeze occurred, causing some damage to warm-season vegetation. Below- freezing temperatures occurred up to four hours, with some areas seeing temperatures as low as 28 degrees. Damage to the wheat crop was expected, but it was still too early to tell to what extent.

Winter wheat was already in poor to fair condition before the freeze, and little grain production was expected. Some wheat acreage was being harvested for hay, while other acreage was either being grazed out by livestock or prepped for another crop, such as cotton. Growers were watering corn and sorghum. Pecan orchards were seeing an abundance of care as trees moved into spring.

Pastures were green but needed moisture. Extremely high winds dried out topsoil and caused red flag warnings. Wildfires were a major concern, with reports of two fires burning a combined 3,000 acres. Low humidity and dry fuels combined with windy conditions continued to keep the wildfire threat elevated.

Stock tank levels continued to decline, and livestock continued to slowly improve in body condition. Demand was good for feeder and stocker steers, and heifers were selling steady. Packer cows and bulls sold $2 higher per pound. Pairs and bred cows sold in a steady market.

SOUTHEAST: In Chambers County, a lot of early rice emerged, but there was a concern because of cold temperatures. Most morning temperatures were averaging 45 degrees. Brazos County experienced below normal temperatures and very strong winds. Livestock in Jefferson County were in fair condition overall. Rangeland and pasture ratings varied from excellent to very poor with good ratings being most common. Soil moisture levels ranged from adequate to surplus with adequate being most common.

SOUTHWEST: A cold front brought strong, drying winds with little to no precipitation. Corn and grain sorghum fields looked good, and cotton plantings neared completion. Pastures looked better, and fertilization and weed control was active. Rain was needed for spring grasses and summer crops. Cooler morning temperatures continued with warm afternoons. Conditions caused some respiratory issues with young lambs and goats. Lambing and kidding season was in full swing. Livestock conditions remained good.

SOUTH: Northern parts of the district reported the continuation of mild to warm weather conditions with adequate to short moisture levels. Conditions were mild with short to very short soil moisture in southern parts of the district. Eastern and western parts of the district reported dry weather conditions and no rainfall with short to very short soil moisture levels. Scattered rainfall was reported in several areas in the district with amounts ranging from traces up to three-quarters of an inch.

In Atascosa County, weather was cooler with some amounts of rainfall reported. A small amount of hail was received with rainfall in some areas, which affected some strawberry growers. Potatoes were flowering. Corn was irrigated. Wheat was turning color and maturing. Pasture and rangeland conditions remained fair to good, but topsoil moisture levels declined.

Some rangelands were having a tough time. Supplemental feeding increased as spring calving continued, and most cows were lactating. Body condition scores on cattle remained fair with some herds declining a little over the past month.

Live Oak County reported dramatic weather swings with a high temperature of 101 degrees followed by a low of 42 degrees with windy conditions and spotty rainfall. Irrigated Bermuda grass and vegetables were in good shape.

In Zavala County, fresh market and processing spinach harvest was expected to wrap up and bring spinach season to a close. Cabbage harvest was expected to resume in the next five to 10 days as some later-planted fields reach harvest stage. Onions were making good progress, and harvest was still 20 days out. Corn and cotton made good progress following irrigation applications. Cotton was still being planted in some areas, but planting should be completed soon.

Livestock continued to do well on fresh forage available on native rangelands and pastures. Conditions remained poor in some areas where supplemental feed and some transportation of water continued. There were some reports of replanted cotton.

In Duval County, wheat and oats were grazed or plowed. Ranchers and deer breeders were supplementing their livestock and wildlife. The live cattle market was better, but prices keep weakening. In Hidalgo County, harvest of sugarcane, citrus and vegetables continued.

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