Severe drought, high fertilizer prices, fluctuating livestock prices and difficult economic times have made producers even more aware of how the production choices they make affect the bottom line. This economic pressure has led more pasture managers to examine the benefits of improving the quality of forage on every acre. Whether grazing those acres or producing hay for winter feeding or sale, producing quality forage can have a major impact on herd performance and return.
"By generating the type of forage needed to meet a herd's nutritional requirements, producers not only protect animal health, but also reduce or eliminate the cost of purchasing alternate feed sources, which can add up quickly," says Vanessa Corriher, assistant professor and extension forage specialist, AgriLife Extension Service, Overton, Texas. "While improving forage production is an investment, it's a better alternative than having to invest in additional food sources or allowing animal health to decline."
Gauging Forage Condition
To determine whether a forage stand should be improved, Corriher recommends starting with a visual assessment. "Do you see more weeds than consumable grass?" she asks. "If weeds have the upper hand, you probably have lower-quality forage, since the desirable grass is competing with weeds for nutrients and moisture. Also check for signs of plant disease, which can cause forage quality to decline."
"When animals graze, the food choices they make is another forage quality indicator. They naturally tend to choose the highest quality forage available. When they would rather eat the hay you put out than grass growing in the pasture, it's a sign forage quality is low."
Body condition is another way to measure forage quality. "If you see changes like weight loss or deteriorated body condition, it's a sign of poor nutrition," Corriher notes. "Unfortunately, at that point it requires a great effort to help those animals recover."
Tips for Improving Forage Quality
To help ensure you're getting top forage production, Corriher provides four key steps:
- Test your soil. Use regular soil tests to identify which nutrients are available and to check soil pH. Many areas in Texas and the Southeast, for example, have acidic soils that can impact a forage crop's ability to become established, grow and persist. "Unless you do a soil analysis, you don't know which nutrients are needed."
- Replace deficient nutrients. Your soil analysis results should include nutrient recommendations for your soil type. Fertilize accordingly to replace missing nutrients. "Depending on your location, some alternate nutrient sources may be available at less cost than commercial fertilizer, such as poultry litter or dairy, beef or other animal manures."
- Control weeds. If weeds are dominant, they will try to outcompete desirable grasses for existing and added nutrients and moisture. "Applying a targeted herbicide is much more effective than mowing long-term and can actually be cheaper."
- Manage grazing. Active grazing management is needed to ensure you're not overstocking the forage area. Allowing animals to graze too long gives weeds the advantage and makes it difficult for grass to recover. "While a number of grazing strategies can be used, they all are geared toward properly matching the number of grazing animals to the amount of available forage."
Source: DuPont Weed Wise newsletter