Expert: Managing Pastures Doesn’t Only Mean Growing Grass

September 3, 2015 12:10 PM

What a pasture should look like – whether a waving sea of grass or one with diverse vegetation – depends on the cattleman’s final goal and actions taken before rain falls, said a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service range specialist.

“With the rains we’ve had this year, the waving sea of grass can be a cattleman’s dream: no weed problems, no brush problems and plenty to eat going into the winter,” said Tim Steffens, AgriLife Extension range specialist in Canyon.

“We don’t get this by accident,” Steffens said. “A lot of what we do before the rains determines what we get when the rains come. And taking care of this country through the drought can have a big, big effect on what happens after the drought breaks like it did this year.”

But management will be the key to determining what the cattle have to eat, and how long it is available and providing sufficient nutrients, he said. Side-by-side pastures can have the same soils and same rainfall pattern but end up with a lot different vegetation.

“Cattlemen may say they want the grass, and someone interested in wildlife will be ecstatic about the forbs and seeds that can grow,” Steffens said. “A lot of people look at forbs and say that is just a bunch of weeds, but what I want is grass.

“What I tell them all is the grass is like the potatoes in a meal, that’s the energy for the livestock. Where the steak or protein comes from is the forbs.”

This year pastures may have tall, mature sunflowers that have popped out and landowners may think they are no good, but when they are young, they are one of the most palatable forbs for cattle in early spring, Steffens said.

By managing the timing and frequency of grazing, the average intensity of grazing, the distribution of livestock across a landscape, and the opportunity for growth and regrowth, the land manager also can control what comes later, he said.

“Palatability of the different plants varies throughout the year, so we can manage that by timing when we are in a pasture,” Steffens said. “By grazing it at different times from year to year, managing how long we stay and how much we take while we are there, and allowing the desirable plants to recover before being defoliated again, we can increase the relative proportions of desirable plants in the pasture.

“We may also be able to make use of plants that would otherwise not be eaten by using them during the time when they are acceptable.

“Many forbs like catclaw sensitive briar, and legumes like bundle flowers and Englemann’s daisy are high quality plants,” Steffens said. “By mixing a little of these forbs with old dormant grass in the spring, we can really improve the diet quality and cut down on the time we have to be feeding protein supplement or hay to these cattle.

Sideoats grama grass is a highly palatable plant that decreases in density under continuous grazing, according to Tim Steffens, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service range specialist. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Kay Ledbetter)

The diversity in vegetation allows the animals to mix plants of different types and take care of their dietary needs, he said.

“So just having grass or just having forbs is probably a bad thing in most cases, but having a mix of them in every pasture can sure be a big boon to us,” Steffens said. “It also provides a way to have something available to respond to rain no matter when it comes.”

He said many of the cool-season grasses like western wheat grass and needle-and-thread grass can be something that will come out early in the season and provide a lot of quality at that time.

“Mixing these cool season grasses with other plants can mean we can go to nearly a 10-month green season up here in the Panhandle,” Steffens said.

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