by: Clifford Mitchell

Managing pastures is a difficult task for most operations. Forage availability and quality depends on many things with stocking rates and moisture at the top of the list. For most outfits, the outlook is a little different at turnout time this year than it was last year. Most have received some pretty good moisture leading to the summer months.

Favorable temperatures have allowed some forage species to get a head start; while other available pastures remain in limbo because of the abuse due to lack of moisture. Rebuilding the life line of the operation depends on allowing adequate time for those pastures to rejuvenate and get healthy.

“Many are getting a short memory of how dry we were. The grass is green and we have had some rain, but the grasses are weaker and the roots are shallow,” says Chris Farley, TCU Ranch Management Program.

“I'm not sure if the drought is over. Most pastures will still need time to recover. Early moisture has allowed us to grow a good crop of weeds on our over-grazed pastures, but they are holding the soil down and giving cattle something green to eat,” says Dr. Joe Paschal, Beef Extension Specialist, Texas AgriLife Extension, Corpus Christi, Texas.

Stocking rates are always critical in planning grazing tactics to make sure there is enough forage for the grazing season. Weaker forage reserves should cause most operations to take a very conservative approach.

“Most who held on to their cows cut stocking rates significantly and those cows look better than they did a few months ago,” Paschal says. “If you're going to run cattle, you have to manage your grass and the amount of rest those pastures get will help the recovery. Correct stocking rates depend on if the operation employs continuous or rotational grazing.”

“Most operations had a drought plan in place. A lot of ranchers kept those proven five to eight year old cows and sold the more marketable ones,” Farley says. “Those cows need about three percent of their body weight in forages. This could be a grass growing year and try to grow grass for next year. Those pastures need rest and to build reserves before we start grazing them hard again.”

Managing the forage resource will depend on several things and the approach could differ some with introduced versus native pastures. Rotational grazing could also help better utilize some of the available forages.

“Now that we're getting some moisture, establish some pasture rotations. Give those pastures time to rest and make sure there is proper re-growth. We can't graze these pastures like a normal year,” Farley says. “Those native pastures are going to need a long time to recover and the low stocking rates may make it tough on some operations. Bermuda grass can be fertilized to improve production and even though costs are higher, it should pay in a cow/calf operation.”

“Our native grasses will come back it's just going to take some time. There are seed reservoirs out there and those pastures will slowly come back to life,” Paschal says. “With some fencing and learning to close a gate, most ranchers could save a lot of money on feed, but more importantly allow those pastures to rest. Flash grazing the weeds is a good way to improve forage quality, because it reduces competition for grass and warms the soil. Adjust your rotations to meet the needs of the cattle and the forage.”

Fertilizer and weed spray have often been called a “grass farmer's” best friend. In recent years, rising costs have caused a little feud. Most have elected not to pay these costs, but this year, if you have introduced grasses, is the time to employ this technology. Some pastures may also need to be re-established after the stress of last year.

“Ranchers need to fertilize according to a soil test because of fertilizer costs. For the value of the extra grass, fertilizer costs are really pretty low. It may be too late for weed control in some areas, but weed control can also improve the amount of available grass,” Paschal says. “Some introduced grasses will need to be re-planted to sustain a high level of productivity. Look for your better soil for pasture renovation, because it will cost a lot more to re-establish these pastures.”

“This is not a year to cheat on fertilizer or weed spray because those plants are stressed,” Farley says. “There may be areas that need to be re-sprigged or re-planted. Make sure you know your costs.”

Stockpiling forages for later in the season is an option for some ranchers to maintain forage availability. Proper timing will help make use of this option.

“If we're growing forage, on introduced pastures, in May, June and July we need to harvest those forages. Graze that ground or bale some hay to try and replenish your supply,” Farley says. “In September and October these forages can be stockpiled to allow for standing hay which should get a dry cow through the first of the year with little extra supplementation.”

“Some people think we can't afford to let a pasture be idle,” Paschal says. “Grow some stockpiled forages at the end of the growing season and manage them. You can't just turn cows out there and leave them alone. You have to put them out there for a few hours and get them off. Otherwise you'll waste most of what you've grown.”

The challenge for most operations will be adjusting to available forage resources. Adjusting stocking rates, monitoring forage availability and quality will be tough tasks to master. Resisting the temptation to re-stock could be the hardest adjustment for commercial operators.

“Native grass pastures really need to be monitored closely. Monitor the grass coming back and utilize it carefully. Stock it according to the forage grown and only harvest one quarter of that grass in case it turns off dry again,” Farley says. “Hopefully, high replacement costs will help most ranchers resist the urge to re-stock. Most pastures aren't ready and even though we've had some rain, pastures are so short I don't know how much moisture we've retained or how deep it is.”

“Buying cows in this market is a challenge in itself. Availability and price will make this decision for most ranchers,” Paschal says. “If you re-stock, it's not going to give pastures the time needed to recover. Most pastures aren't ready for increased stocking rates.”

Water quality issues could continue to plague some operations due to lingering effects of the drought. Replenishing and monitoring water supplies is just as critical to most as the giving pastures time to rehabilitate.

“Most pastures were vacated because of concerns over water quality and availability before they ran out of grass. Water quality could still be a problem for some,” Paschal says. “This may force some operations to consider developing new water sources like drilling a well. Water that comes out of a well not only will improve water quality, but it will also get people off our back about ruining water sources and help our image.”

“You can have all the grass you want, but if you don't have a good supply of water, you won't be running cows any time soon,” Farley says. “With all the runoff, because of short pastures, there could be some sediment buildup in some tanks. Some operations may have to look to develop new water sources.”

Taking care of the land or practicing good stewardship has long been something that most ranchers try to do with pride. When there is a lack of moisture pastures end up being abused due to overgrazing. In dire times, adjusting stocking rates is tough because the cow herd is not exactly liquid for some operations, especially when genetic selection has been applied for generations to create females that fit.

The liquidation has caused pain and some operations have a hard time adjusting to not having cattle. As the moisture returns, it offers many ranchers a second chance to make things right.

“Most miss having cows, but hopefully, we are good enough stewards of the land to resist the temptation to come back with cattle before pastures are ready. When it's time to come back, stock with more efficient females,” Farley says. “If moisture continues through the growing season, it will repair and re-generate some of those pastures. You have to ask yourself do we have enough root system to utilize those grasses. Make sure you can sustain those grasses long term before you increase stocking rates or re-stock.”

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