It’s the talk of the industry. Prices for nearly every input for beef production, from fuel to fertilizer, from grassland to grain, have increased dramatically over the past few years. This means higher production costs across the beef industry but especially in the feeding sector, where high grain prices have hit margins hard. In response, feedyard buyers are willing to pay less and less for cattle this year, squeezing margins for cow-calf producers.
The current economic signals point to a need for efficiency in beef production, and perhaps the best opportunity for better production efficiency is to fall back on the bovine animal’s greatest advantage — its ability to gain weight on forage.
There are essentially two ways to produce more pounds of cattle on standing forage. One is to graze calves for longer time periods and market them later. Another is to stock more cows on the same acreage. Either approach requires innovative management to assure sustainable production. And as forage becomes more valuable, the last thing ranchers need in their pastures are weeds that compete for space, sunlight, nutrients and water.
Utah State University Extension weed specialist Steve Dewey says today’s economic conditions should motivate producers to re-think their ideas about weed control on pasture and rangeland. Given the price of other inputs, weed-control measures that improve forage production become increasingly cost effective.
Ranchers, he says, sometimes have set limits on what they think they can spend on weed control, believing if it costs more than $5 or $10 per acre, they can’t justify the expense. Now, he says, they should re-evaluate those limits, as the value of increased forage production could more than compensate for the investment.
As the industry focuses on increasing forage utilization, Dewey says any talk of extended grazing seasons or higher stocking rates should raise red flags. “We’ve learned the lessons about the lasting damage and production losses overgrazing can cause. If we’re going to keep cattle on grass longer, or stock more cattle on the same acreage, we need to improve forage production through more intensive management.”
In another part of the country, Texas A&M University range specialist Allan McGinty, at the Agricultural Research and Extension Center at San Angelo, agrees that weed control becomes increasingly beneficial as the value of forage increases.
He says controlling annual weeds in particular can provide immediate and long-term benefits for minimal cost. In a dry year, he says, controlling broadleaf annuals might not be that much of an issue, but if spring moisture is available, they can take over quickly.
“Some of these annual weeds make decent forage for cattle, sheep or goats,” he says, “but the problem is, they create a boom-or-bust situation.” Their value as forage is short-lived and inconsistent, while their suppression of perennial grasses can persist indefinitely.
Timely treatment with relatively inexpensive chemicals can bring a dramatic shift from dominant annual weeds to perennial grasses, which provide a more consistent, predictable and sustainable forage resource. McGinty says that depending on conditions, removing 1 pound of annual weeds can result in production of 1 pound of additional perennial grass.
Timing is critical, he adds. “Sometimes when ranchers see all those green plants early in the season, they want to leave them for the cattle. But that is the time to treat for best results on annual weeds.” Knocking them down early will allow better production of perennial forage that season and, with continued good management, a sustainable change in the range plant community.
McGinty stresses that with the spray technology available today, most ranchers do not need to invest in aerial spraying or custom application contracts for pasture weed control. For about $500, he says, a rancher can convert a four-wheeler or larger ATV into an efficient spray rig. A boomless nozzle system mounted to an ATV can spray a 50-foot swath, he says, allowing one person to treat 100 acres of weedy rangeland in less than a day.
Watch for invasives
Many of the weeds that cause the biggest problems in pastures and rangelands are non-native or invasive plants. Depending on the habitat, some of these take over large areas in a short time.
Dewey describes two categories of invasive weeds. One includes weed species that already have become established in pastures and rangeland such as cheat grass, leafy spurge and knapweed. These require on-going control efforts to protect forage production. Producers probably will not eliminate them, but comprehensive management can keep them under control.
The other category includes new invasive weeds that might appear on grazing land. Here, Dewey says, producers have an opportunity to intervene early and prevent these weeds from becoming established. Recognizing that most producers will not learn to identify every species of invasive weed, he suggests just watching for anything unusual. “Learn to identify the plants that should be there,” he says. Then, if you find something you do not recognize, you can look it up or work with a specialist to identify it and determine if it is a potential problem.
Integrate your control measures
Dewey stresses the importance of using multiple methods of weed control in an integrated or complementary system. Herbicides are valuable tools for controlling pasture weeds, but in many cases a combination of tools will produce the best results.
For example, a particular herbicide might work pretty well by itself, but using the same product after a prescribed burn or intensive grazing could provide even better control. In research and practical application, Dewey says fire, followed by herbicide treatment, followed by reseeding with selected forage grasses increases forage production more than any combination of two methods.
Some of these strategies, such as reseeding or investing in fencing to allow intensive rotational grazing, might have seemed too expensive in past years. But with feed prices so high, consider the benefits of, for example, keeping your cows on pasture for another month or two before feeding them hay, or holding calves after weaning and selling them later at heavier weights.
Using intensive or prescribed grazing can help control weeds and improve plant diversity. These methods require additional expense and labor for fencing, herding cattle, and providing water and supplements, but again, Dewey says, in today’s market the opportunity to turn more forage into beef can justify the expense.