IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT . . . OR COST

by: Larry A. Redman
State Forage Specialist, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, College Station, Texas

Oftentimes pasture management is viewed as a process involving highly visible management strategies that are expensive to implement. These strategies may involve establishment of a new forage variety costing hundreds of dollars per acre to development of elaborate fencing designs. In reality, though, many of the management strategies that may have the greatest impact on the production system are very cost effective and may range from little to actually no cost at all to the producer. Failure to pay attention to these small things, however, can lead to dramatic increases in the cost of production. The following examples are strategies that all producers can and should take advantage of.

1. Soil Test: Given the high price of fertilizer, fertilizer applications should ONLY be made based on soil test recommendations. In forage production, it is critical to understand exactly what the forage nutrient requirements are and apply only those nutrients called for by the soil test recommendation and only in the quantities recommended. To fertilize without a soil test results either in over-applying nutrients (an expensive and wasteful proposition) or under-applying nutrients (this results in a declining stand of forage and reduced production). Either scenario will cost you money. Think of the soil test as the dip stick for your soil. A dip stick tells you if you have enough oil in the crankcase, and if not, the dip stick tells you how much oil is required. The soil analysis performs the same task by telling you if you have enough phosphorus or potassium, or if the pH is too low, and then tells you how much nutrient or limestone to apply. The $10 spent on a soil analysis will pay many times that amount in production dividends. No one, and I mean no one, can tell you how to fertilize without a soil test.

2. Practice Good Weed and Insect Management: Heavy weed infestations can reduce forage production by competing for valuable sunlight, soil moisture and soil nutrients. The cost to control most broadleaf annual weed species is still relatively inexpensive and truly a bargain when it comes to enhancing forage production and improving grazing animal performance. Broadleaf weed control can still be obtained for $4 to $12 per acre, depending on the herbicide chosen. A recent check on insecticides indicated that grasshopper control could be obtained for $2.50 to $4.46 an acre. This is an important aspect since grasshopper infestations are typically higher during the dry conditions (in Texas) many are experiencing presently and as few as 10 hoppers per square meter can consume up to 60 percent of the available forage. The same is true of fall army worm infestations; they can consume essentially all of the available forage overnight if left untreated. Therefore, good pest management is essential for maintaining a healthy, vigorous stand of forage that will meet the production enterprise goals and objectives, and the cost is still affordable. Remember, forage is a terrible thing to waste.

3. Protect that Hay! Hay is an expensive commodity. Once hay has been produced or purchased it is important to shelter the hay from losses associated with weathering, primarily due to precipitation. A simple pole barn is estimated to pay for itself in as little as four to six years by reducing the amount of dry matter loss and animal refusal of hay compared with hay left in the open. In lieu of a barn, hay tarps are also effective in reducing hay loss during storage. The least desirable way to store hay is in the open field, but even then, there are ways to arrange the hay to minimize losses. Hay should be stored in rows with flat ends together and two to three feet between the rows. Hay should be stored on a well-drained site and rows should be oriented north and south to maximize sun exposure and facilitate rapid drying of the hay following a precipitation event. Whichever means of protection are chosen, it is a cost-effective strategy to safeguard the hay supply from the deleterious effects of exposure to the elements.

4. Analyze your hay for nutritive value: Whether a producer purchases or produces hay for feeding to his livestock during the winter, a forage analysis should be conducted to determine the hay nutritive value. Hay nutri- tive value cannot be determined by "looking" or "feeling" or "smelling" the hay. Several problems can occur if hay nutritive value is not determined prior to feeding during the winter. If, for example, a producer over-estimates the hay nutritive value, animal performance can be severely affected since the animals will not receive the appropriate level of nutrients for their particular physiological status. For pregnant females (cows or heifers), this may lead to a reduced body condition score at calving, which in turn increases the interval between calving and re-breeding. Knowing the nutritive value of hay helps the manager to formulate a rational supplementation strategy. On the other hand, if a producer underestimates the hay nutritive value and the hay will meet the nutrient requirement of the target animals, unnecessary supplementation may be purchased, thus needlessly increasing the cost of feeding animals. Finally, in the case of warm-season annual grass hays such as the sorghum-sudan, hay-grazer types, or one of the millets, a separate forage analysis for nitrates should be conducted to determine if the hay is safe to feed. Warmseason annual grasses have the ability to accumulate nitrates to a toxic level during less than optimum growing conditions, such as drought. Once the hay is harvested, the nitrate levels will not diminish with time and may kill the cattle when the hay is fed during the winter. The cost of either the routine analysis for crude protein or for nitrates is only $5 each. You simply can- not afford not to have your hay analyzed. Play it safe and have the forage analyzed.

5. Evaluate your stocking rate: Use of the appropriate stocking rate is the most critical aspect of livestock man- agement and one that generally does not cost at all! Cattle size has increased over the past 40 to 50 years and forage intake increases with body size. If prior ownership of a property pastured 100 head of cows, stocking at the same rate today would create a severely over-stocked situation simply due to the increase in cow size. Coupled with woody species encroachment over time, many properties simply cannot support their current level of stocking. To make matters worse, higher fuel and fertilizer prices are forcing some individuals to reduce or eliminate their fertilizer inputs on introduced forages, thus decreasing the carrying capacity of the property even more. Drought is another issue that significantly affects stocking rate and should be built into the stocking rate management plan. Producers should carefully, with the advice of stocking rate experts, determine what their appropriate stocking rate should be and make adjustments accordingly. Another tip, in many cases, less is more.







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