As we strive to improve the performance of our beef operation, there are some simple things we can do to improve how our cattle perform by managing our pastures. Many of us mow our pastures to remove weeds and make the pasture look better, but there are more benefits. When we mow the weeds early in the season, we also remove seed heads from the grass which will encourage new growth. Early in the season, the grass is in the reproductive stage, focusing more on seed development, but once this is accomplished and the seed heads are removed, the plant moves on to the vegetative stage, encouraging more leaf growth, improving quality and quantity. In addition, removal of the weeds will reduce irritation to the eyes of cattle, decreasing the chances of pinkeye. If needed, an additional clipping of weeds later in the summer will also keep the pastures clean, weaken the root reserves of perennial weeds and possibly kill late summer annual weeds before seeds mature.
If we can divide the pasture, we will give the grasses and legumes a chance to rest. Once grass is grazed too close, it will have to produce new leaf growth from the root reserves and slow new growth. Also, when we have multiple pastures to graze, desirable forages will a chance to regrow and not be as likely to be eliminated from over grazing. This is the reason why we recommend the “take half and leave half” principle of grazing.
One problem that many of us face is that undesirable forages may keep on growing. One of the grasses that many of us do not particularly care for is fescue. The reason we do not like it is that it has an endophyte in it that causes elevated body temperatures in cattle and it is not very palatable, resulting in poor performance. However, we can do something to reduce the problem and still benefit our cattle. Simply graze it in the late fall and in the winter. Once we have several killing frosts, the sugar content rises and palatability increases. In addition, endophyte levels start to decrease, reducing problems to our cattle. If we can graze it close in the winter (without causing any erosion problems), other desirable forages will have a better chance to compete when growth initiates in the spring. If we want to take this a step farther, adding 50 pounds of nitrogen in late summer to early fall (even now) can increase quality and quantity of the fescue, making an ideal late fall and winter stockpiled feed. We can increase the protein content of the grass by two percentage points and increase yields by a ton per acre. In most instances, the quality of the stockpiled fescue will be higher than most first cutting mixed hay.
There are also a couple other ways we can improve forage utilization in our pastures. One is the strategic location of our source of water. For many of us, this may not be an option, but having the source within 800 feet of the fence will improve forage utilization. The thought behind this is that at distances less than 800 feet, cattle tend to walk to the water as needed. At distances greater, they tend to arrive as a group.
The placement of the mineral feeder can have an impact on animal movement as well. Placing a mineral feeder at a location that may be less grazed, may encourage more activity in that area. One of the worst things we can do for forage utilization is to have water, shade and the mineral feeder close to each other. Not only will grazing be less even, but over time, there will be a noticeable change in manure distribution and fertility in the field.
Which brings me to my final point (which has been an internal debate for me during my career as an Extension Educator and a cow-calf operator): to lime and fertilize or not. Factors to consider include your financial situation and the amount of forages you have access to. However, I have one additional thought. While I was at a farm visit the first of August at a cow-calf operation in Morgan County, the producer wondered why his cattle was not grazing part of the field and after some investigation, the grass that appeared to be at an ideal growth stage was poverty grass or broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus L.) which cattle do not like to graze. This is a clear indicator of poor fertility which usually means the p.H. and phosphorus levels are low. In order to get a better utilization of his field, he needed to take a soil test, then lime and fertilize, which will encourage growth of more desirable forages. From a personal observation, I have noticed that my cows are much more anxious to move to my paddock that has the highest (which by most standards are low) fertility than to my other paddocks. I wonder if the grass is more palatable?
So as we go through the fall, these tips are some examples of things we can do to improve our utilization of our pastures and hopefully increase the performance of our cattle. As I try to prioritize which things I should do, I will at times divide them into no cost; low cost; and high cost to help me make decisions.