Among the impacts of drought, reduced competition from desirable pasture and range forage can allow weedy plants to gain a foothold and spread, further reducing forage production. And with feed prices at record levels, standing forage is a precious resource for cow-calf and stocker operators. During the Cattle Industry Convention in Tampa, we sat down with DuPont Crop Protection range and pasture specialists Rob Brattain from Montana and Matt McGowin from Mississippi to hear their perspectives on the importance of weed control this year.
McGowin says that in the Southeast, broadleaf annual weeds typically are the biggest problem in pastures. Seeds from some of these plants can lie dormant in the soil for years, and germinate following drought when stands of desirable forage grasses are thinned. They tend to grow early, capturing groundwater before forage grasses come out of dormancy, and also compete for nutrients and sunlight. McGowin encourages producers to survey their pastures early, looking for any new weeds becoming established, and using control measures quickly.
In the West, Brattain says perennial forbs and brushy weeds typically are a bigger problem than broadleaf annual weeds in pastures and rangeland. He also notes that drought, fires and shifting land-use policies mean less access or shorter grazing periods on public land for many ranchers, meaning they need to use their own pastures longer. This increases the need for good management and optimum forage production on available pastures.
Spraying weeds in the West often entails aerial application, and Brattain recommends strategic applications, initially targeting the most productive land and timing the application before the weeds produce seeds. Proper treatment with an appropriate herbicide can bring dramatic improvements in forage production over a relatively short time.
Brattain relates an example from his own ranch, saying he sprayed pastures nine years ago using DuPont’s Cimarron product. At the time, weedy forbs accounted for up to 60 percent of plant populations. After spraying, forage production increased from about 900 pounds per acre to 3,000 pounds. His cow herd now goes into fall in better body condition, he can delay feeding hay until later in the season and his average weaning weights improved from 660 pounds to 700.
Brattain adds that when weedy forbs or shrubs account for 25 percent or more of ground cover in pastures, treatment generally will provide a positive economic return. After a year or more of drought in many western states, 50 percent weed cover is not uncommon in pastures and rangeland. Both specialists stress that current market conditions, with calf values and feed prices at record-high levels, weed control can pay off like never before by reducing need for purchased feeds, increasing weaning weights and potentially improving reproduction.
They also note that toxic weeds can cause sickness, death loss and significant economic losses, particularly when a replacement for a dead cow costs $1,200 or more. Producers should learn to identify toxic weeds in their area and work with specialists to use appropriate controls as needed. McGowin provides the example of perilla mint, a southern weed that is highly toxic to cattle. The plant tends to grow in the summertime and in the shade – right where the cattle spend their during hot weather.
So, even if pasture weed control has not been a priority in the past, this year’s feed prices and cattle values could boost the return on investment in a herbicide program.