Solving problems seems like we all spend a lot of our time in this pursuit. There have been countless books written on the subject. Techniques developed and applied by companies and universities and individuals. There are a lot of good strategies to use but there is only one that is truly effective yours. In the last issue, we talked about the origins of a lot of the problems we see on the farm and how to begin working through these issues. In the second part of this series we will talk about things that can be done preemptively to prevent some of this from happening or make the solutions easier when problems do arise.
Major Train Wrecks
We've all seen the pictures on TV, in the newspaper or on the internet where someone has made a huge error in judgment and ended up with major problems. One of my favorites was an e-mail I got a while back of a series of pictures of the events surrounding trying to extract a car that had fallen off a pier into a body of water. Before it was all over with, not only was the car in the water but so were several tow trucks and a crane! Also, one of my favorite television shows is America's Funniest Home Videos. Now in my opinion the best ones are the ones with animals or kids doing the things they do but many surround accidents that happen, faulty judgment or folks doing something ridiculously stupid that generally ends up with someone getting hurt (why are these so funny by the way?).
When we see these types of things there are several things to gain. First, generally they are newsworthy and sometimes outright shocking. Second, we can often learn something for finding out what happened or what went wrong. Finally, we can't take comfort in the fact that there are folks that do things that make my day to day foul-ups look really insignificant (i.e. make me look less dumb)!
In any situation there is generally something that could have been done to prevent the problem. Sometimes not, that's why they are called accidents. What we need to look at here is what we can do to prevent as many problems as we can from happening on your cattle operation.
Knowing and Planning
Knowing and planning take a lot of the wind out of the development of potential problems. Knowing your operation and planning for production and future needs.
Let's talk about knowing your operation a little bit. This is really intended more for producers who have not owned a particular piece of property forever. Those guys that have been on their farm or ranch all their lives can skip on to the next section or can they? To help prevent unknowns from happening here are some steps you might consider taking:
1) Obtain a map of your farm detaining the overall layout and the soil types. You should be able to get this from your county USDA Service Center. They should also be able to provide you with information pertaining to the soil types found on your farm and the characteristics. They may also have information as to the history of any improvements their organization may have been involved in over the years (terracing, other soil erosion efforts, other programs). While you are there you might ask about any programs they may have in place currently that you could participate I that could help improve your farm or ranch in some way. Remember it's all your money anyway.
2) Research previous ownership and land use. This information may be available at your county courthouse or from the county tax office. Depending on where you live or where your farm is, remember, someone has owned your property for a long time and as such it may have been in some type of production for decades and longer. For instance, there are farms in the Mississippi River bottom that have been planted in cotton since years before the civil way. As such the soil characteristic and nutrient profiles will have changed significantly over the years. Try to determine how each pasture or hay meadow has been managed in the past. This can help explain some differences you might see in performance of animals or in forage production in two pastures or fields that look identical and are just across the fence from one another. An example I see commonly is when a producer moves a group of cows from one pasture to another that is adjacent to the first. Upon making the move the mineral intake for that herd goes up or down significantly indicating a difference in the mineral profile of the forages in the two pastures.
3) Take extensive soil samples of each pasture or field. Depending on size of variation in soil type (refer to your soil maps you obtained per No. 1 above) there may be dramatically different fertilization needs depending on current soil fertility profiles, soil type or purpose of a given pasture or field. This will help you determine how to best fertilize a given area to optimize your performance. It can also help you identify or spot potential problem areas, i.e. field with a low soil pH and potentially a high sulfur content. High sulfur in soils and subsequently forages can have a detrimental effect on cattle performance. Also note levels of other minerals, some of which can be antagonistic to the absorption of other minerals. We'll discuss this more under forage testing. High or low mineral levels in the soil can be an indicator though of a similar potential problem in forages and thus to the animal.
4) Take extensive forage samples in all pastures and fields. Remember, soil samples are an indicator of what it will take to optimally feed the plant; forage samples are an indicator of what it will take to optimally feed the animal. The nutrient levels in the soil samples are not always directly correlated with the nutrient levels in the plants grown on the soils. Numerous other factors also come into play. In addition to determining what the nutrient levels are in your forages (protein, energy, minerals) you can get an idea of the digestibility and thus the quality of the forage growing at a given point in time. Finally, as mentioned above, you can determine if there are specific problems in the forages grown in a particular area particularly low nutrient levels, excessive sulfur or other mineral content. It can also help identify conditions such as high nitrates which tend to be related more to environmental conditions in a particular area than to the condition of the soils.
One area in particular to consider has come about because of the development of Round-Up Ready forages i.e. plants that are resistant to the use of Glyphosate containing herbicides that would otherwise inhibit their growth. It is now believed that some strains of forages that are RUR are poor in their uptake of manganese and thus are very low in the mineral and can ultimately produce a Mn deficiency in cattle fed these forages. It is important to be aware of situations like this.
Similarly, some areas can be very high in other minerals. One in particular is sulfur which can become very problematic. Higher sulfur levels can interfere with the animal's absorption of other minerals, particularly copper and selenium and can result in deficiencies of these minerals resulting in inhibition of immune function, reproductive performance, growth, etc. This reduction in absorption of Cu and Se can be noted at S levels as low as .25 percent (dry matter basis). Higher levels of S (greater than .4 percent) can also create problems with depressed dry matter intake, loose stools, lethargy, nervous system conditions, etc. While this has been a problem for a longer period of time, producers are only now recognizing the situation and are beginning to understand how to manage the situation.
High nitrates, as mentioned are more affected by temporary conditions induced by weather/environment, i.e. a combination of plant species, fertilization and environmental stress increase the accumulation of nitrates in the plant. Levels above .9 to 1.0 percent (DM basis) are considered to be a problem and in acute cases can cause animal sickness or death. High nitrate forages should be fed very carefully, diluted with other, non-nitrate inclusive plants to reduce the overall level of nitrate available to the animal.
5) Sample water sources. In some areas water sources, especially water from local wells can be high in some minerals Calcium, Iron, Sulfur, etc. that can contribute to the animal's overall mineral status. This can likewise contribute to an absorption antagonism.
Soil, forage and water samples should be considered collectively when evaluating the overall nutrient character of your pastures and fields. You should note specific characteristics from each area as well as particular characteristics within a given area based on differing soil or forage types. These assays should also be considered together when developing your mineral and overall feeding and supplementation program, taking into account what the forages are bringing to your program and where you have weak or strong points in the nutrient profiles (high or low protein, digestibility as indicated by acid detergent fiber and neutral detergent fiber, mineral levels found in forages and water).
6) Take a plant species inventory. Walk or drive through given pastures and field and evaluate what plant species exist in a given area. This may be very easy in some improved pastures where the plant population may be, for the most part all one species (i.e. all Bermuda grass, fescue, orchard, etc.) It can be challenging in some areas where the plant population is mixed. Some pastures, especially those that are unimproved can contain hundreds of plant species. Also, take note of weed species in a given field or pasture as well as level of infestation. This will help you determine if you have weed varieties that could create a problem to the animal certain types of weeds are toxic or can cause other health related issues. Additionally you can determine if a given pasture would benefit from a weed control program. Remember that the weed population is pulling from the soil nutrients just like the consumable forages are and are thus in competition with the desired plant species. Also, presence of high weed populations can create other problems such as eye irritation or injuries as animals attempt to graze through the weed canopy which can, in some cases be taller than the forage the animals are grazing.
It is just important for you to understand what you have in a given area and determine in advance if this could somehow create problems for you down the road.
The steps outlined here will help you better understand the soil and plant characteristics inherent to your operation. This knowledge is also critical, as discussed to developing a fine-tuned nutritional program and insuring that your herd is receiving the correct nutrients at the correct point in time.
Gathering this information does not occur overnight and will require time, effort and expense on the part of the producer or his labor force. Nonetheless it is an important investment in the planning and knowledge process.
Developing a good knowledge of your farm or ranch can be invaluable in offsetting potential problems or correcting for conditions that exist in specific areas that could produce less than desirable results. In the next issue we'll continue this discussion and look more into preemptive planning and actions that can prevent and potentially eliminate some of these issues that can create such headaches as well as ultimately result in improved performance overall.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulfur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.blnconsult. com.