Weather you raise your cattle on rotational pastures or out on the range, you need to capitalize on the one thing in life that’s still free. Sunlight! To be profitable in today’s cattle markets, you need all the free input’s you can get. For most producers, sunlight is the only thing that is still free. In the North East, we have mineral rights that are to protect our natural gas and crude oil that flow’s under our pastures, in the mid-West it’s water that land owners are trying to control/protect. That’s especially important after receiving beneficial rains like last week in Colorado and parts of Texas. With good moisture and the return of warm-HOT temperatures, pastures and rangeland are poised to hopefully grow rapidly before the mother nature shut’s off the spigot again.
Just because sunlight is free, don’t take it for granted. As our forages capture solar energy, our grazing lands become more productive and our livestock more profitable. The only way to capture solar energy is with healthy, green leaves. The more land area completely covered by green leaves, the more sunlight that’s captured and converted into more grazable forage. This is also an important factor for forage producers or "Grass-Farmers" as we’re referred to in the North East. If you haven’t already taken off your first cutting of hay or haylage, remember to leave at average of at least 2-3 leaves per plant so that your forages will have the leaves necessary to capture your FREE solar energy and promote a healthy re-growth for future production.
This season, as you check your livestock and forages, don’t just look out over the pastures. Look down through the stands. How much bare ground do you see? Improving the amount of green leaves capturing sunlight begins with proper cattle stocking rate. Once that’s accomplished, avoid grazing too short. A good rule of thumb is to not move cattle into a pasture or paddock until it has reached 18" of height, and move ‘em out before there is 4" remaining. Move your cattle to new pastures/paddocks while you still have lots of green leaves remaining to capture and utilize your FREE solar energy. Then your plants will capture more sunlight, regrow more rapidly, and produce more forage for your animals to graze later on. On our farm we seed our pastures with the same forages as our hay fields. In a "good" weather year, we can expect our pastures and hay fields to regrow at about the same rate over a 4-5 week period.
Get the WEEDS out!
While many weeds can provide satisfactory protein and energy for cattle when eaten, controlling weeds with heavy grazing pressure might not be healthy for the pasture. Since some pastures stay relatively clean while other pastures become weedy, other factors undoubtedly influence the weed population. For example, you might have the cleanest, most lush looking pastures that are meticulously maintained to the point that tourists might pull up to your house wanting to know when the Tiger Woods will be playing here next! But if you neighbors don’t do anything with their fields and pastures that border your fields, it’s only a matter of time until your forages get "infected" with weeds like multi-floral rose, Canadian thistle and the like. Simply grazing or controlling weeds by spraying or cutting does little to prevent weeds from coming back again unless these other factors are changed to better support desirable plants. I never recommend commercial chemical sprays, they might kill what’s bugging you for the moment, but it’s never a permanent fix.
To control weeds, it is much more important to manage grazing to support healthy desirable plants than to weaken or remove unwanted weeds. Grazing that allows sufficient leaf area to remain following grazing to support rapid regrowth, allow good winterizing, and hold snow and rain moisture on the land rather than running off will benefit the desirable grasses and legumes. Giving pasture plants adequate time to recover after grazing before grazing again is another way to improve or maintain pasture health and strengthen the competitive ability of desirable plants. Weeds in a pasture indicate that the pasture itself and the desired plants in it are not in a healthy condition.
Let’s look at some advantages of a grass-alfalfa mixture. If you regularly feed more than five or six pounds of alfalfa per day to stock cows during winter, they probably are getting way more than enough protein but maybe not enough TDN. Mixing grass with alfalfa usually lowers the protein but slightly increases the TDN content of hay. So your cows actually could receive a more balanced diet. Also, if you sometimes graze your hay fields, grass will reduce the risk of bloat. And when cattle are first moved out to lush spring pastures bloat and grass-tetany are real concern, especially if the legume to grass ratio is way off balance.
A good way to help reduce bloat is to wean your cattle onto fresh grass/legumes. AND allow them access to "free-choice" dry hay. Free-choice means they have access to dry hay when they are becoming re-familiarized with fresh green pastures in the spring. Cattle are amazingly smart when it comes to regulating their diets when given the proper options. The best way to prevent grass tetany is to allow them a "free-choice" Mol-Mag mineral block.
Warm season grasses can grow in areas where alfalfa is not well-adapted or they will fill in spots as alfalfa dies out. This is better than having weeds invade bare areas. Grass-alfalfa/legume mixtures often dry out more rapidly after cutting/mowing for hay than pure alfalfa so you might get more hay made without rain and sun damage. And if it does rain, the mixture usually suffers less injury as it re-dries in the windrow, while being raked and in the baler. Yield-wise, protein yield per acre may be less with the a grass-legume mix, but total tonnage will be about the same or higher than pure stands. Most of the grass yield will come at first cut, so regrowth will be mostly alfalfa. Selling a mixture can be more profitable, because dairies producers find round bales, especially when ensiled, is more difficult to grind in their TMR mixers. Not to mention the excessive weight of pure alfalfa bales can wreak havoc on the blades in their TMR mixer wagons. A 4’ X 5’ wrapped/silage alfalfa bale can weigh in excess of 2,000/lbs.! I can attest to those bale weights and knife damage.