Perennial Pastures Require Care, Planning

So you want some perennial grass on your place for grazing or maybe even hay? Before you get started on this project, get a leg up and do some planning, said a Texas Cooperative Extension beef specialist.

"Perennial grass for pasture is more economical than planting annual grasses," said Dr. Ted McCollum, Extension beef specialist at Amarillo. "It takes less time, labor and fuel to establish perennial grass because you plant it only once. Just make sure you want it there for a long time."

Putting a perennial grass where it can remain productive year after year is part of an overall plan that requires different management than row crops or temporary pastures, McCollum said.

"Perennial grasses are different than annual grasses," he said. "They don't put all their reproductive energy into seed production. They reproduce vegetatively through tillers (new upright stems), stolons (above-ground runners) and rhizomes (underground runners).

"They're out there for the long haul," McCollum said. "We can benefit from that if we manage those grasses for crown and root health, and limit grazing to allow the plants time to rest and replenish themselves."

Fertilizing perennial grasses benefits yield and forage quality. A general rule of thumb on the High Plains is 30 to 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre for dryland Old World Bluestem in one application.

"Research has shown that we can boost forage production with every pound of nitrogen applied," McCollum said. "An upfront application is recommended for dryland pasture. There seems to be little or no benefit in using split applications. If rainfall has been good or you have irrigation in the equation, consider using a little more nitrogen."

Nitrogen also boosts the protein content of young, tender forages preferred by livestock, he said. Research with Old World Bluestem has shown that the first increment of nitrogen applied (30 pounds per acre) can increase gain per head and gain per acre, he said.

"Grazing studies have shown little or no affect on gain when more than 30 pounds per acre of nitrogen were applied," McCollum said. "We also have to have good phosphorus levels to get a boost from the nitrogen we apply. The recommended rate is 50 pounds of P2O5, but it's a good idea to run a soil test first and apply phosphorus as needed.

The best way to achieve good livestock gains on perennial pastures is to adjust stocking rates based on the amount and quality of available forage, he said.

"If you treat cattle like lawnmowers, they'll perform like lawnmowers," McCollum said. "We cannot expect cattle to completely consume all the forage in a pasture and still perform well.

"We have to manage our forage and adjust our grazing to allow warm-season grasses to bank nutrients in its roots before fall and winter. Come spring, the grass will use those stored nutrients to initiate new growth."

Taking livestock off the grass during the growing season, preferably in September and October, allows the forage to rest and regenerate nutrient stores in its roots, he said.

"Your overall pasture plan can also include paddocks planted to complementary forages," McCollum said. "The idea behind complementary forages is one provides what the other lacks - whether it's quality, carrying capacity or grazing - when the other is deferred from grazing."

After the fall rest period, perennial grasses can provide some grazing of residual forage during winter, he said. Adequate fertility during the growing season and respecting the grasses need for rest helps forage quality through winter.

"This can lessen the need for supplementation during winter," McCollum said. "During the growing/grazing season, cattle will need a mineral mix similar to what we would provide for them on native range."

McCollum was a featured speaker at a recent South Plains perennial grass workshop sponsored by Extension and the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation.

Funded by the Texas Water Development Board, the alliance is a joint effort of Texas Tech University, Extension, the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District No. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Agricultural Research Service Cropping Systems Research Laboratory, and several producers in Hale and Floyd Counties.

Information on the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation and its cropping projects is available online at:

A look at the potential of perennial pastures on the High Plains is available online at: .

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