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Taking Stock "Of" Your Pastures

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No, the title is not a misprint. "To" should not replace "of" in the title, although it would make sense in a forage article. Actually, in this article, "of" is most appropriate. Now is a good time to take "stock" of your pastures. In other words, it is time to assess pastures and their condition.

The dry summers and mild winters of the past four years have adversely impacted many farms and ranches that depend heavily on warm season grass production for their forage supply. Warm season grass stands have deteriorated while cool season forages have prospered. There are numerous instances where long-established stands of bermudagrass, lovegrass, and Plains bluestem have almost completely died out. Ryegrass overseeded into bermudagrass has taken over once productive bermudagrass pastures. Native grass stands have seen a marked increase in Texas wintergrass, cool season annuals, and undesirable forbs or "weeds". Weeds, such as ragweed, broomweed, milkweed, and bitter sneezeweed, just to mention a few, have reached intolerable thresholds for many producers. If any or all these scenarios describe conditions in which you have more experience than desired, taking stock "of" your pastures is more important than taking stock "to" your pastures.

Taking stock of your pastures simply means assessing the condition and trend of the pastures. That is the easy part. The more difficult problem is addressing what needs to be done to improve the situation. The fact is, it is difficult to do everything in one year, so pasture improvements need to be prioritized relative to the return and associated risks involved. Pastures with good soils and introduced grasses usually can be improved more quickly, but it can be costly. Native grass pastures and introduced grasses on shallow or rocky soils should be a lower priority. Management practices to enhance native grass stands may not necessarily be costly from a monetary standpoint, but they may require more time to recover. The rest of this article, in a problem and answer format, will focus on management practices to improve introduced pastures and native grass pastures, respectively.

Introduced pastures

Problem: Excessive cool season annuals, such as ryegrass, in warm season introduced forages, such as bermudagrass or Old World bluestem, that prohibit grass production in the spring, but warm season forage is still present.
Answer: Remove cool season annuals from warm season forage stands by early May through intensive grazing or haying. In extreme cases, apply herbicide, such as Round Up, to cool season annuals during the winter well before the initiation of bermudagrass or Old World bluestem growth (in February for example). Fertilize according to soil tests in early May.

Problem: Excessive cool season annuals in a historically warm season perennial grass pasture with little or no warm season perennial grasses present.
Answer: There is no easy answer. If optimistic, one can apply an herbicide, such as Round Up, to the cool season forages in winter, February for example. Then, based on soil tests, apply phosphorus and potassium needs to soil. If warm season grasses emerge in the spring, add nitrogen and control weeds. This will often work for bermudagrass, but results are not always rapid. It is usually less successful with Old World bluestem and lovegrass. Another solution would be work the soil, surface only, with an implement instead of applying Round Up. An additional step would be to add seed of a recommended variety to the disturbed area. Most hybrid bermudagrass varieties are propagated by sprigs, but there are some good forage producing seeded varieties of bermudagrass that will work to restore forage production of an area. Old World bluestem and lovegrasses will respond better with this treatment. The most drastic situation would be to prepare a good seedbed and replant with a recommended variety that is suitable for the region, soil type, and level of management. This last option is also the most expensive.

Problem: Long-established warm season pasture that has died out leaving land bare and weedy.
Answer: Again, there are no easy answers. The obvious solution is to replant, but the soil type and the previous pasture type might lend itself to other considerations. Hybrid bermudagrasses will probably need to be replanted the following spring (the earlier the better) if there has been little recovery over the summer. Soil fertility should be addressed using current soil tests. Weeds will also need to be controlled. Sprigged varieties of adapted bermudagrasses are usually more productive than seeded varieties, especially on sandy and loamy soils. Seeded varieties are, many times, easier and quicker to get established on heavier soils and clays. If pastures are to be grazed only, the seeded varieties may have an advantage over sprigged varieties. Old World bluestems work best on loams and well-drained clay soils. Lovegrasses are best suited for sandy and loamy soils. Kleingrass mixes well with Old World bluestem on heavier soils south of the Red River and west of I-35. Dallisgrass mixes well with bermudagrass on heavier soils east of I-35. Crabgrass can be added to plantings in sandy and loamy soils. Such mixtures are not always recommended, but should be considered along with cost. Grazing or harvesting should be limited and controlled during the initial year of establishment to increase the likelihood of success.

Problem: Intermittent patches of warm season perennial grasses in a once complete stand.
Answer: Appropriate fertility according to soil tests will certainly improve the situation. Bermudagrass with good fertility and management tends to recover more quickly than Old World bluestem and lovegrass. Broadcasting seed at a light rate with fertilizer in the spring can help fill in the stand more rapidly. Light tillage and weed control will also aid in re-establishment. For best results, bermudagrass and Old World bluestem should be seeded in April while lovegrass should be planted in February.

Native grass pastures

Problem: Good stand of desirable native grass that has a heavy weed infestation, but desirable native grasses are present in abundance. (Desirable native grass in this article are identified as big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, indiangrass, eastern gamagrass, and sideoats grama, although there are other desirable native grasses also.)
Answer: If possible, graze the weed, or forbs, and annuals early in the growing season (April) but defer pastures from grazing at least during May and June. If weeds are limiting forage production of desirable native grasses, spray appropriate herbicide to reduce competition from undesirable weeds. Remember, not all weeds are undesirable with many being beneficial to wildlife and livestock. All native grass stands will have some forbs/weeds present. The increased presence of undesirable weeds are usually a sign of range deterioration due to over-grazing, drought, disturbance, or a combination of these factors. With proper grazing management, this can be overcome in time. It is important to maintain plenty of residual plant material (minimum of 4" height) during the dormant season.

Problem: A good stand of native grass that has a marked reduction in desirable grasses and forage production, and a dramatic increase in undesirable forbs or weeds.
Answer: First, determine the amount of desirable native grasses present. If noticeable, consider herbicide application in spring and defer grazing throughout the growing season. Grazing management should be targeted to allow for proper graze and rest periods for the desirable grasses in the subsequent growing season. Again, maintain plenty of residual plant material during the dormant season. It may take several years for pastures to recover.

Your problems, as well as solutions, may vary from these examples. Management after an action plan is implemented is as important as the action itself. Alternatives to improve deteriorated pastures should be considered as well as cost, timing factors, and probability of success. In order to begin addressing the needs, one has to take stock of their pastures. It may mean changes in management of cattle and pastures including reducing livestock numbers, at least short-term, in order to prevent losing further stock in the "roots" of the livestock enterprise - the forage supply. For more information, visit with a forage and pasture specialist.