Mother Nature is the original steward of the land, using herds of nomadic beasts to graze one patch of grass and move to the next, giving plants adequate times to rest before animals returned to graze them again. When called for, her own form of controlled burning was implemented through wild fires clearing the way for new vegetation.
As time evolved, cattlemen joined her in partnership to take care of grazing lands, dependent on each other for ultimate success. Any good cowboy knows he must be a good “grass farmer”, first and foremost, to be successful producing beef. To be the best steward of the land, cattlemen must understand nutrients needed, plant physiology and, most importantly, be able to sharpen his pencil and identify the most cost-effective options to manage his most valuable resource.
For the last couple years, Mother Nature has failed to hold up her end of the bargain. The drought that has plagued many grazing areas of the country has seen some relief in places, but for others moisture remains a big question mark.
“In Louisiana, we have had some pretty timely rains that have provided relief, but we have not built up a lot of soil moisture. Conditions could change and we could turn dry again,” says Ed Twidwell, Extension Forage Specialist, LSU Ag Center.
“In Alabama, we're deficient in rain statewide. We have gotten some moisture, but we needed a lot more this spring coming in on the heels of a drought,” says Dr. Don Ball, Extension Forage Specialist, Auburn.
“In a lot of places we have reduced soil moisture. Recent rains have allowed some areas to rebound pretty significantly, but it won't take long to deplete soil moisture,” says Dr. Larry Redmon, Extension Forage Specialist, Texas A & M.
Recent moisture has helped a lot of areas. Cattlemen, who are trying to be good stewards of the land, are faced yet with another villain. Increases in fuel and fertilizer costs lie in wait, like a thief in the night, to steal profits. Understanding plant needs will allow producers to spend their dollar wisely as they look to repair pastures.
“If you have never soil tested, now is the time to start. As fertilizer price continues to increase, producers are wasting money using a base fertilizer,” Redmon says. “The soil test allows producers to put out only those nutrients that are called for.”
“Check your fertilization schedule. Since it has been dry, most producers have skimped on fertilizer,” Twidwell says. “Check soil pH, phosphorous and potash levels. Especially potash, it really affects the vigor of Bermuda grass plants.”
Most producers have to take a few days to recover from a long stressful calving season or just like giving those weaned calves time to make progress from a series of distresses, pastures will need adequate time to mend themselves. Good stewards will know to take their time as they restock their herds. Overgrazing is common during dry times, cattlemen should look to break the cycle once moisture hits.
“Producers should exercise caution. Pastures have been in drought conditions for two to three years, it will take them a little while to bounce back,” Twidwell says. “Don't be in too big of a rush and stock your pastures too heavy.”
“Pay attention to stocking rate. Don't graze those pastures too short,” Redmon says. “If you can see hooves, you've grazed those pastures too short.”
“Our pastures need a lot of TLC, which is very difficult to do with limited forages available and lack of rain,” Ball says. “About anything I could suggest for producers to do is trumped because there is not adequate moisture. Pastures are extremely stressed. Even if we started getting adequate rainfall, they won't respond like they have in the past.”
Simple changes to management strategy could be beneficial to the ground and help grazing areas get needed rest. Grazing systems could help plants recover and make better utilization of available forage.
“Pay attention to how fast the grass grows back. Some form of rotation would be beneficial this year,” Twidwell says. “If plants aren't recovering very fast, they are still stressed.”
“Rotational grazing tends to work better with cool season annuals than warm season perennials,” Redmon says. “Some form of rotation allows producers to get better utilization of their grass.”
Increased planted corn acres, government regulations and high prices have put a bounty on fertilizer this year as compared to year's past. Soil testing for the right nutrients is the place to start, but exploring all the alternatives could provide extreme savings. Plan ahead and decide production goals for different acreages.
“Producers have to keep fertilizing at a level the plant requires. Producers need to sit down and take a long look at the operation. The main question a producer must ask himself is, “Do I fertilize the whole place marginally or should I fertilize my best ground adequately to get the most production?” Find the fertilizer that best fits the soil test and is the best buy,” Redmon says. “The price per ton of fertilizer is not where a producer needs to stop. He needs to figure out what it costs per pound of nitrogen. If you can get the same benefit and it costs $5 per acre less, for 100 acres you saved $500 by just shopping your needs. There are some very good alternatives available like urea and broiler litter, look at the price per actual pound of nutrient.”
“I am definitely concerned about fertilizer. Ammonium nitrate is hard to get because of government restrictions and the paper trail. Producers have to be careful with ammonium sulphate because it lowers soil pH, which is already a problem,” Twidwell says. “We don't have a lot of good options when it comes to fertilizer. We have plenty of urea, but it is way too volatile without rain. Some producers are going to plant clover this fall, which will help the soil. Pastures that had some nitrogen in April look a lot better right now than those that weren't fertilized, this practice gets the pastures off to a good start.”
Hay stocks, in most areas, have been fed during the dry period. High feed costs during the winter months emptied most hay barns waiting for spring moisture to return pastures to normal. Hay fields need the same brand of TLC, to get back to full production.
“Most of our hay barns are empty and we have gotten off to a bad start with hay production this year,” Ball says. “We need to take good care of the hay we do have with good storage and feeding techniques. If we lose 30 percent of the hay during storage and feeding, we have to produce or buy 30 percent more hay.”
“Producers are going to have to be more conservative in their cutting management as hay fields recover. If you normally get four cuttings, you may have to settle for three,” Twidwell says. “Stands that were well taken care of prior to the drought will rebound more quickly. With the timely rains, our producers utilized rye grass extremely well. Some people even put up hay as an insurance policy if it gets dry this summer.”
“We need to quit cutting way late in the season and allow those plants to recuperate. If producers continually cut late and ignore fertilizer requirements, it will cause damage to their stands,” Redmon says. “It depends on how much producers are willing to spend to produce hay. Hay production depends on how much moisture we receive. If the price of fertilizer and diesel keeps going up, it will cost $95 to $100 per ton to produce. Some producers might be better off selling hay equipment and buying hay. It will be interesting to see how people react.”
With pastures in rehab, getting over the difficult period, weeds have taken center stage. These pests can brave the drought and tolerate the heat better than most desirable grass species. Decreasing the weed population will aid in the recovery effort, helping pastures get one step closer to normal production.
“Spraying is very critical this year. We have places where weeds have destroyed the warm season grasses. We are headed for more dry times later in the season and to control bad weeds we can only do one thing, spray them. If a producer can only afford to fertilize or spray the weeds, I would tell him to spray,” Redmon says. “Spraying is cheaper than mowing. Producers may be forced to mow if it gets dry and we don't have good spraying conditions. Mowing is not as effective or cost-effective as a timely herbicide application.”
“We have more weeds this year because we're coming off a very dry summer and overgrazing gives weeds the opportunity to flourish,” Ball says. “We're too dry to even apply herbicide. Mowing could be an option, if weeds are above the forage stand, this will reduce the amount of shading. With some weeds it will also reduce seed production and hopefully decrease problems for next year. The price of diesel makes it an expensive option, but a viable choice in some cases.”
“During the past few years we have seen an increase in weed species because they are very hardy and can survive the drought,” Twidwell says. “Producers need to have some form of weed control.”
Changing to some alternative forage could also help those warm season perennials recover. Summer annuals could be a good option, but like most changes in management, this comes with a producer beware sign. Another classic scenario where producers must make sure the benefit outweighs the cost and caution factors.
“Millet and some of the sorghum sudan varieties aren't a bad option. There are costs involved, but they would take the pressure off permanent pastures. They are somewhat drought tolerant, but increased nitrates, if it turned off dry, could be a problem,” Twidwell says. “Producers can get some pretty good use out of these grasses if they are grazed and managed properly. It is a little different option than rye grass is for our producers because they have to bear the cost of preparing a seed bed.”
“Warm season annuals tolerate the heat and drought, but they are expensive to plant. Under the right circumstances excess nitrates will kill cattle,” Redmon says. “I don't like to recommend these unless there's irrigated ground. Cost is a big factor, I'd rather have a perennial grass.”
The partnership between cowman and Mother Nature has been here longer than anyone can remember. This joint venture must work together like a pair of ballroom dancers performing the most graceful waltz. When one fails to hold up their end of the deal, it leaves the other out of options. Although Mother Nature definitely takes the lead and the cowboy has no control, this co-existence must be cherished to pass the delicate responsibility of stewardship on to the next generation.