Proper forage management preserves recent gains

Southwest ranchers got much needed rainfall last spring and summer that restored forage growth in pastures and rangeland. But holding onto that good fortune requires equally good management says a Noble Foundation pasture and range specialist.

“It was a great year for Bermudagrass and native grasses, said Matt Mattox, Noble Foundation pasture and range specialist, during the recent Texas A&M-Commerce Ag Technology Conference.

“Rainfall in some areas totaled 45 inches to 50 inches. We got good coverage and good forages. But now, ranchers need to hold onto it and take advantage of this good year.”

He said ranchers should adhere to the basic principles of ecology. “If we keep down the shoot, we kill the root,” he said. “If we graze too short, we lose a lot of root mass.”

Mattox said nature will replace introduced grasses, such as Bermudagrass, “with what was there before. So we need to maintain it (Bermudagrass pasture) and keep it going.”

Mattox believes nitrogen fertilization is important. “Keep nutrition up.”

“In dry years we see native grasses coming up through Bermudagrass. That’s nature putting back what was initially there.”

Moisture availability is the primary limiting factor in forage growth, according to Mattox. Grasses that produce multiple growing points recover quicker than grasses with fewer growing points. Bermudagrass, for instance, has more growing points than does Johnsongrass.

He said several factors affect forage health and recovery.

Grazing intensity, frequency and duration are critical. “Selective grazing is also important for both livestock and wildlife. Ranchers can graze Bermudagrass more intensely and more frequently than they can grasses with fewer growing points.”

He said closely grazed grasses have less root mass and provide more opportunity for weeds to come through the gaps. Removing more than 50 percent of plant leaf area will stop root growth for a period of time. “Bermudagrass growth habit allows landowners to graze a bit shorter.”

Mattox said ranchers should understand the benefits and limitations of both native grasses and introduced species. “They have different origins and introduced species may need different management to support different growth habits. Native plant communities are often diverse.”

Forages are different in palatability and also response to nitrogen fertility.

“Cows will find their preferences in native grasses,” Mattox said. “They’ll concentrate on the more palatable forages. And knowing what cows prefer is important.”

Mattox stated that animals will take out the most desirable plants and leave the less desirable.”

He advocates that ranchers should “seek a balance with forage grasses. Change is a common development in the entire plant community with soils, microorganisms, animals, and plants. Diversity equals stability in native plant populations.”

Soil testing pasture or rangeland is as important as for row crop production. “If you fertilize without a soil test three things can happen, and two of them are bad. You may have sufficient nutrients and waste money by applying fertilizer. You may have too little and not apply enough. Or you may get it right.”

Soil tests minimize the risks.

Mattox said fertility expenses will be up this year, making efficiency crucial. He recommends that ranchers who plan to apply more than 100 pounds of nitrogen use split applications, half in April and half in June. He also recommends ammonium nitrate.

“Phosphate is also important. Ranchers can’t get the efficiency from nitrogen fertilizer without adequate phosphorus. Apply potassium based on soil tests. Potassium helps avoid winter kill and encourages disease resistance.”

He said high potassium rates are not recommended.

Weeds compete with grasses for moisture and nutrients, so forage managers should have a weed management plan. “It’s important to identify weeds. Annuals are usually easier to kill, especially when they are small. Perennials are harder to manage and (herbicide application) timing is important. Identify the weeds and apply the proper chemical at the right time. Calibrate sprayers properly.”

He said ranchers have a lot of effective herbicide options for weed control in pastures and rangelands.

With expenses rising, Mattox recommends forage managers allocate resources on their best land, “where they get the most production. Also, know the plants, understand how the grass grows, know which plants perform best in specific locations and under specific conditions, appreciate the differences between introduced and native species, maintain proper stocking rates, watch fertilizer and chemical prices, and don’t overgraze.

“And don’t base your stocking rate on last year’s rainfall,” he added.

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