by: Clifford Mitchell

Escalating costs of production have forced producers to look for efficiency any where on the ranch to help keep these figures in check. Forage production, although not free, can limit the need for expensive grain and supplements the cow herd needs to maintain production goals.

Growing grass is a little more complicated than waiting until the desired growing season and hoping forage production will match forage needs. The complicated task of growing forages starts with production goals and ends with producers diligently watching pastures trying to promote production of desirable grass species.

“Taking small steps and creating goals for your property will help increase available forage and maybe even allow producers to eventually add numbers,” Dr. Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Forage Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

“Producers have to get the mindset where they treat pasture like a crop. We have to monitor pastures on a more regular basis,” says Dr. Ed Twidwell, Forage Specialist, Louisiana State University AgCenter.

“Production goals will help producers take better care of their pastures and hay ground,” says Dr. Rocky Lemus, Forage Specialist, Mississippi State University.

Getting a better handle on pasture management may start with a soil test. This is a simple inexpensive process most fail to do.

“Soil health is really important, because it will impact forage production. If don't follow the soil test recommendations it could lead to economic loss. Applying lime could be the cheapest thing most producers do because certain pH levels can negatively impact production,” Lemus says. “Soil test multiple fields, because one field doesn't reflect the next. Just applying fertilizer with no soil test could be very detrimental to production.”

“Without a soil test most times you are just throwing money away because you don't know what your forage crop needs. Soil tests usually aren't that expensive,” Twidwell says. “If you don' soil test and have a low pH, it could be detrimental to the forage crop even if you fertilize. Soil tests increase the efficiency of the fertilizer.”

“Fertilizer is expensive. A soil test is the first step because you can apply exactly what that ground needs. If you don't soil test and are applying more nutrients than you need, it's very wasteful,” says Corriher-Olson. “If the soil test calls for more nutrients than we can afford, we can still take a strategy where we can have a positive impact on the soil.”

Weed control also has big impact on pasture health. Removing these undesirables may help pastures improve more quickly. Treating with the proper products and at the right time could mean the difference in a relatively cheap weed control program vs. a more expensive one.

“We have really good luck going early, before June 1, with a quart of 2-4-D per acre in our area for weed control. Most producers just wait to long for weed control. Products aren't applied at the right time to get the benefit,” Twidwell says. “Most of our summer grasses need full sun. Producers applying herbicide or clipping the undesirables, to remove competition at the right time, get a lot of bang for their buck. If you aren't out there trying to take care of that weed problem it could be too costly to take care of.”

“It's very important to get out early, in April or May, to assess the impact weeds are having on the pasture. We need to know what weeds we have and soil test areas where they are heavily populated,” Lemus says. “Some weeds aren't very susceptible to herbicide. You need to scout your fields so you can buy a broad-spectrum product that will target the major weeds in your pasture. Timing has a lot to do with weed control. A lot of weeds once they get bigger than six to eight inches tall are harder and more expensive to control. If you wait too late seeds are going to still be there, which could cause problems next year.”

“Weed control starts with identification. Some weeds, like Johnson grass and crab grass, can actually be consumed by livestock. Look at specific areas, in some areas, weed density may not be high enough to worry about control,” says Corriher-Olson. “You have to identify those weed populations and then choose the right product, apply it at the right time and rate for effective control. Sometimes producers look at the cost of herbicide thinking they can't afford it and then make the problem bigger by brush hogging the field. Weeds are heavy nutrient users and if we can eliminate the weeds, soil nutrients will go to forage production.”

Identifying different products can sometimes stress producers because of sticker shock. Correctly pricing desired products could help producers decide on the most affordable product.

“Producers need to break down fertilizer cost into price per pound of nutrient to avoid that sticker shock,” says Corriher-Olson. “Doing a cost comparison will help producers make some really good economical decisions. If you don't fertilize this year it could cost more next year because of the change in the soil and forage production goals.”

“Price fertilizer based on price per pound of nutrient; a per ton cost doesn't always give the whole answer because some products have more nitrogen,” Twidwell says. “You have to monitor costs because they do change periodically throughout the year.”

Grazing programs may also help producers improve forage resources when they are utilized properly with weed control and fertilizer plans. Ultimately, money spent to improve pastures will increase forage production, which in turn could provide several advantages to producers. Maintaining pasture management could help decrease production costs, because of increases in carrying capacity or gain on certain classes of cattle.

“The beginning of the process starts with taking care of the pasture and maintaining good rotations to increase forage production. As forage quality and production improves producers can either increase stocking rates or extend the grazing season,” Lemus says. “If you graze pastures better and take care of desired forages, they will compete better with weeds and more desirables will be in the pasture. The right grazing system will also help control costs.”

“Proper grazing management strategies will allow for more animals to graze the same forage base. Weeds are going to be there, if through grazing and weed control you can promote desired forages then you can reduce dollars spent on weed control and maybe make it an every other year expense,” says Corriher-Olson. “If you use the soil test correctly and don't over apply or under apply nutrients at some point you could save money. With proper soil nutrition, over time you could see increases in things like gain or fertility.”

Time utilized to become a better “grass farmer” could help the bottom line. A strategy to improve the overall grazing situation helps to lower annual costs in a variety of areas on the ranch. Pasture management is just another spoke in the wheel when it comes to beef production. So many factors can affect the decision-making process, that pasture management is often left off the list.

“Make forage production goals then manage accordingly. This is easy to do on hay ground because you know exactly how many tons that were produced,” Twidwell says. “It's hard to know how much forage cows actually harvest. If you keep good records, you'll have an idea of what's going in.”

“Control costs buy utilizing a soil test and eliminate the high costs of guessing. Look at all your costs and budget what you need based on that soil test/ Calculate the cost per unit of fertilizer or break it down to know exactly what it costs to control that weed,” says Corriher-Olson. “Fertilizing and weed control promote desired forages. You have to continually evaluate, look for ways to control costs and, hopefully, impact productivity.”

“Constantly monitoring will help you become more cost-effective and develop a yearly plan to help those fields. Producers will be able to maintain those fields rather than replenishing the nutrient supply every year,” Lemus says. “When we design the right program we may not see the full benefit until we get residual nutrient effects.”

Don't forget to BOOKMARK  
Cattle Today Online!