Pasture foreman Tom Tippets has a way of breaking down the big numbers on the Deseret Ranch of St. Cloud, Fla. With more than 40,000 cows on 300,000 acres, it’s the largest cow-calf operation in the United States.

“We do everything the guy with 50 or 100 cows does,” he says. “We just do more of it.”

The primary goal at Deseret Ranch is to be the least-cost producer of weaned calves while maintaining or improving the ranch resource. Pasture management is key to that balance. 

The ranch is organized into 14 production units — 11 commercial units, two heifer development units and a seedstock unit to provide bulls for the commercial herds. Each unit has a set of pens and a foreman who oversees one or two cowboys. Cows are sorted into herds by age and condition to simplify supplemental feeding.

Virtually all of the units are on a one-herd, two-pasture rotation. Foremen typically move the cattle about every two weeks. On its best grass, the ranch can support an animal unit on about
  2.5 acres.

As pasture foreman, Mr. Tippets works with the unit foremen to maintain and improve pastures. He oversees forage establishment, fertilization, weed and brush control, and pasture renovation.

Soils on Deseret Ranch tend to be poorly drained deep sands. Average annual rainfall is 55 to 60 inches. In this environment, the ranch depends on improved bahiagrass and hemarthria, a relatively recent import from South Africa. Both are warm-season perennials.

“We’re lucky to have bahia,” Mr. Tippets says. “Further north, they call it a weed, but it’s drought tolerant and water tolerant. We could graze it to 3 or 4 inches in the summer, but we don’t.”

Mr. Tippets fertilizes selected bahia pastures each spring. The predominant grass on the ranch, bahia provides most of the grazing from spring through fall. It may stay green from October to February, and cattle graze it, but it’s not growing, Mr. Tippets says.

The Deseret Ranch does not make hay and limits annual ryegrass to heifers, 2- and 3-year-old cows and thin, mature cows. Hemarthria is the backbone of winter grazing.

Mr. Tippets fertilizes some hemarthria pastures in the spring and all in the fall to stockpile forage for winter. Grazed down to 3 or 4 inches in the winter, hemarthria stays productive with regrowth. “It’s high in energy, but it’s not high in protein,” he says. “We can increase the protein with fertilization.”

From about mid-November to mid-March, unit foremen also supplement cattle with 33 percent protein cubes and molasses. All cattle get supplemental mineral year-round.

The nutritional program keeps cattle productive. Conception rates, including heifers, average 88 percent. Weaning weights average 550 pounds.

Keeping pastures productive requires weed and brush control, as well as fertilization. Mr. Tippets sprays 8,000 to 10,000 acres per year with two 375-horsepower Case IH Quadtrac tractors mounted with 1,000-gallon sprayers and 70-foot booms. A broadleaf herbicide controls dogfennel and goldenrod. For the woody wax myrtle, he uses 1 quart of Remedy® herbicide in 30 gallons of water per acre.

For cost-effective management of the very invasive species, it’s hard to beat the small sprayers most unit foremen have fitted on four-wheelers or pickups. Mr. Tippets encourages the foremen to control small infestations before they grow into big ones. Tropical soda apple is a prime example.

First identified in South Florida in late 1980s, TSA can form dense thickets of plants 3 to 6 feet tall with thorns on leaves and stems. Grass disappears beneath the canopy. Cattle and wildlife eat the fruit and spread the seed.

“Where you have one plant, you can have 50 next year,” Mr. Tippets says.
“I like to see a foreman spray every isolated plant. You can control these with spot treatments with Remedy — you just have to stay on top of it.”

That’s another part of Mr. Tippets’ job — encouraging cowboys to think like grass farmers.

“We’re really good cowmen, but probably only fair grass farmers,” he says. “We have room to improve as grass farmers.”