Eric Mousel

Summer grass has become one of the most limiting aspects of the cow business in the region. In many cases, the cost of summer grass has surpassed the cost of feeding the cow over the winter. This presents some real challenges in an age where so many are trying to maintain the herd they have or expand to capture the market windfall occurring in the cow deal right now.

One of the critical aspects of getting the most out of summer grass is general maintenance of pastures and range. There are a tremendous number of management strategies and techniques available to get as much utility out of summer grass as possible; too many to cover in this one article. So, let’s talk about what I consider are the five most important aspects in relationship to optimum grass growth and utilization by the cow herd.

Soil fertility

Probably one of the most over-looked aspects of pasture management is soil fertility. Grass is a crop like any other crop grown in the region, but seldom is it manicured as such. It is largely treated as wasteland and the productivity is thus reflected by this management philosophy. However, for the typical cow-outfit, grass is one of the most precious resources we have and soil fertility is the basis for managing this resource. The first place to start is by soil testing pastures to determine current pH and nutrient availability for the grass plant. Although pH may not be a concern in a lot of areas, acidic soils (pH <6.5) are a huge issue in many areas throughout the region. All of the management techniques in the world will not make an iota of difference if the soil pH is not close to neutral (pH = 7). Therefore, pH testing and liming soils to correct soil acidity is a critical component of boosting pasture production.

Additionally, making sure adequate levels of N, P, K, and S are available in the soil medium to meet species and yield objectives are critical, just as in any other crop. Recommended amendments will be suggested as part of the soil test for the requested crop. Legumes, grass-legume mixes, tame grass monocultures, and natural grasslands all have very different nutrient requirements and thus soil amendment recommendations. Therefore, stating the specific species and yield objectives in relationship to the soil test recommendations is imperative.

Control of weeds and brush

Excessive weeds and brush in pastures can be detrimental to both productivity and utilization. Taking corrective action in terms of controlling undesirable species is important. Thresholds for certain classes of weeds and brush should dictate the corrective actions to be taken. As an example, native forbs such as the goldenrods, ragweeds, and the common dandelion are unsightly, but generally do not have a tremendous impact on productivity of the pasture until they reach a critical population. Conversely, things like Canada thistle, wormwood, and burdock have a much bigger impact on productivity and utilization of pastures and thus the thresholds for corrective action should be much lower. Brush species not only reduce productivity by outcompeting desired species for nutrients, but they also hinder utilization of grass by livestock.

Not all weed and brush control need be herbicidal. Many weed problems in pastures are the result of improper grazing rather than the undesirable plant itself. Correction in grazing techniques may resolve the problems in the case of native plants that are not desired in a pasture setting. Herbicide treatments will be required for other situations involving super aggressive and noxious weeds that simply out- compete grass, regardless of management. Either way, a comprehensive weed control plan should be implemented that includes all available techniques to maintain both productivity and utilization.

Water sources

Water quality for livestock consumption is critical in a pasture setting as it is in any other setting. Dugouts, dams, and other static surface water sources that are not properly managed can result in reduced animal performance for both the cow and the calf. Excessive sedimentation, high iron content and increased incidences of foot rot all will accompany poorly managed surface water sources. Limiting livestock access to surface water sources with fencing and access gaps; allowing a vegetation setback around the water will help mitigate many of these issues. Providing access to well-drawn tank water or rural water may be an option for some. Using solar submersible pumps may be an option to draw water from a dam or dugout into a tank without allowing livestock direct access to the surface water.

Fencing and cross-fencing

Depending on the individual situation, cross-fencing pastures and implementing a rotational grazing system can not only improve the carrying capacity of pasture, but will give managers more options to manage pasture grazing. A rotational grazing system does not need to be a big, complex thing as it is often perceived to be. Research has shown that the largest increase in utilization and management control of grazing occurs after a pasture has been cross-fenced into four smaller paddocks. Fencing more than four paddocks in a single pasture does not necessarily result in better utilization by livestock or management control of grazing. Higher level grazing management techniques such as mob-grazing or strip-grazing may be practical for some; and will result in increased levels of utilization and management control. However, these grazing strategies require extremely high levels of labor commitment and infrastructure, so they may not be realistic for everybody.

Spring turnout and fall gather dates

Although often over-looked, spring turnout is one of the most critical management decisions a cow manager will make all year; primarily because the implications of turning out too early can have negative effects on grass productivity that can linger for several years. Research has shown that most grass species in our country need to have at least three leaves and be at least six inches tall before grazing commences in the spring. Grazing too early has been shown to reduce grass productivity by as much as 30 percent in extreme situations. Given the strange spring we have had thus far, it is advisable to monitor grass closely before turning out. Just because it is 70 degrees and no snow doesn’t mean the grass is ready to graze.

Similarly, fall gather is an equally important management decision for long-term grass health. Pastures across this state that have been over-grazed or run-down are often damaged the worst in the fall by leaving cattle out too long. Grass plants need time to regrow and store energy in the fall for winter survival and spring growth next year. Pastures that are grazed right up to first frost are not allowed to store the energy they need and may winter kill or green up very slowly the following year. In either event, low yielding, sod-forming grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and undesirable weeds are given an opportunity to fill the gaps left by key forage species that were improperly managed. Most pasture grasses will need at least 2-3 weeks to recover from grazing; before heavy frost to maintain their vigor over the long-term.