Top Ten Strategies for Survival with Forage

Kleingrass Pasture

Dr. Larry Redmon was the featured speaker at a Livestock Forage Seminar a few years back when we were having another one of our periodic droughts!  Dr. Redmon is an Extension Forage Specialist and has been for many years.  Basically, he has lots of experience meaning he has about seen it all!!   Certainly Dr. Redmon has been through a number of droughts and even though this one now is severe, basically there is always one thing you can count on in a drought – forage is scarce.  Knowing this Dr. Redmon shared his Top Ten List with the group, and it works now…

Number one – Have a plan.  I visit with lots of livestock producers and still I am amazed at how few have any idea what to do.  Even if raising livestock is not a full-time occupation still it is important to know where you are going. 

Number two – soil test to know what you have.  With the very high cost of fertilizers (organic or conventional), it is important to know what you have in the soil and what you might need to buy.  A soil test costs $15 and will probably save you hundreds.

Number three – practice good weed and insect control.  I am a real believer in weed control since every pound of weeds controlled means at least one pound of extra grass and many times 3 or 4 pounds. Organic growers must use their cattle to mob graze weeds early and do it often.  The insects to control are grasshoppers and armyworms.  Both are not hard to control if caught early which means you should be walking your pastures often.  We have several organic sprays that work well.

Number four – consider alternative fertilizers.  It may not be feasible for all producers, but some may have access to poultry litter, cattle manure, even biosolids.  These can be less expensive but only if shipping and application doesn’t cost too much. (Organic growers understand this but also consider supplementing your manure with beneficial microbes to stimulate natural nitrogen cycling.)

Number five – consider forage legumes in grazing pastures.  This is a long shot since legumes do well here some years and others they don’t even come up.  Legumes can do well when we get fall rains but  in years like this, we never see them grow. 

Number six – evaluate your stocking rate!!  This is the most important part of drought management.  A livestock producers best friend is the stock trailer in a drought but unfortunately no one wants to sell a single animal believing instead that they can make it.  Ideally no range or pasture should be stocked above 70% of its capacity always leaving forage for years like this.  Instead, livestock producers think the good years are the ones that determine stocking rate when in fact we live in Texas where droughts are more common than rain.  What causes overstocking?  Larger cattle, weeds and brush taking over pastures, not fertilizing, not selling!

Number seven – purchase hay rather than produce it.  Unless you have lots of hay pastures you cannot justify owning hay equipment.

Number eight – analyze your hay for nutritive content.  Sometimes producers overestimate their hay quality and animal performance suffers but definitely you can save on supplements if your hay is higher in quality.

Number nine – consider stockpiling forage for winter feeding.  This is not a new concept, but I do believe one that has been forgotten.  Basically, you take a pasture that has been grazed short and close the gate by September 1st.   Fertilize it like you are growing hay and don’t turn the cattle in till you are ready to start feeding hay.  This standing forage is high in nutrition and certainly cheaper than baled hay.

Number ten – consider your forage base.  This last one has to do with considering native grasses versus bermudagrasses that need to be fertilized.  Dr. Redmon took the group through a few scenarios based on commonly accepted stocking rates for bermudagrass and native pastures.  It does take more acres per animal unit for native pastures, but you save on the cost of fertilizer.  For example, if you have 300 acres and it takes 12 acres per animal unit for native and 5 for bermudagrass then you have 25 cows on the native and 60 cows on the bermudagrass.  If both have an average weaning percentage of 90% then you have 23 calves produced on the native and 54 on the bermudagrass.  At $1,000 per calf that is $23,000 income on the native and $54,000 on the bermudagrass – quite a difference!    Now subtract $400 per cow per year for maintenance costs or $10,000 on the native and $24,000 on the bermudagrass leaving $13,000 for the native and $30,000 for the bermudagrass.  Now let’s subtract the $100 per acre for the fertilizer cost (organic or conventional are about the same this year).  $0 for the native and $30,000 for the bermudagrass pasture leaving $13,000 income for the native and, you guessed it, $0 for the bermudagrass!  If you don’t like these numbers just change them but it will be hard to beat the native grass.  Why? Natives are adapted to produce more on less and at a higher nutritional level.

Number eleven? Maybe this is just an addendum instead of an actual number 11! It applies to those who are trying to figure out what grasses to use and I thought it was appropriate to add it.  Dr. Redmon has said this at many of his forage programs and it is even more important with high input prices.  “A point could also be made regarding the use of other introduced forages that require little to no fertilizer under grazing. Examples are Bahiagrass east of IH 35/45; Kleingrass, WW-BDahl Old World bluestem, one of the lovegrasses (weeping, Wilman), others? Just a thought…” 

In Central Texas we have consistently seeded Kleingrass, Wilman, and WW-BDahl mixes with outstanding results. It takes a few years to establish but the cattle seem to love it and the fertilizer costs make it well worth it!

Author: Bob Whitney, Regents Fellow & Extension Organic Specialist

Agriculturalist, extension educator and researcher, organic agriculture enthusiast and promoter, international program developer, Christian, husband, father and friend.

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