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Manage for the Pasture You Want

Posted Nov. 1, 2010

As I work with producers to better manage their forage resources, I am often presented with an either/or scenario. Many pastures have a combination of native and introduced grasses, prompting me to ask the producer, "What do you want your pasture to be?" Typically, past management will dictate the condition or health of a pasture. A well-managed bermudagrass pasture will be a monoculture. Well-managed native grass pastures in the Southern Great Plains will be dominated by a mixture of grasses such as indiangrass, switchgrass, big bluestem and little bluestem the "Big Four" grasses of the tallgrass prairie. Native plant communities consist of grasses, forbs and shrubs, so diversity is an indicator of good native pasture condition. Thus, if management has been lacking on either native or introduced pastures, then we are often faced with a choice: manage for the native or the introduced grasses.

Having both native and introduced grasses in the same pasture results in poor management of both. Native grasses require different grazing management than introduced grasses. When they are together in a pasture, you are doomed to either overutilize the native grasses or underutilize the introduced grass. If there are both types of forages in a pasture, then a decision needs to be made regarding which one to manage for.

The case for bermudagrass
Bermudagrass, an introduced grass, is often the correct choice for landowners who want to maximize stocking rates on their property and have few wildlife management goals. Bermudagrass is an excellent forage for raising beef, but it has been compared to a desert or even a biohazard for most wildlife species. Well-managed bermudagrass can be stocked at a rate of 3 to 5 acres per cow per year on good soils if growing conditions are favorable and fertilizer inputs are used to push production. Bermudagrass can tolerate short grazing, although it should be grazed no shorter than 3 inches during the growing season to optimize regrowth. If one doesn't want to be locked into a moderate or high input production system, then bermudagrass is not the optimal choice. The absence of these inputs over time is usually responsible for native grasses creeping back into the pasture. Properly timed herbicide applications are also essential for maintaining a monoculture of bermudagrass.

The case for native forages
Managing the natives in your plant community can be the correct choice if you have wildlife goals, do not want to be locked into a moderate or high input production system and can accept that 10 acres or more per cow per year is a reasonable stocking rate. Even though native grass systems are generally considered to be low-input, use of management strategies such as prescribed burning are just as important as the use of fertilizer is for bermudagrass. Native grasses evolved under the influence of landscape fire and respond positively to it. Periodic growing season rest is another tool that can be used to allow native grasses to flourish and proliferate.

The case for starting over
Sometimes the forage that you have doesn't fit your goals. Perhaps you want to manage for native grasses, but the natives that are present are low quality grasses such as broomsedge bluestem or annual three-awn. If you don't have more than 15 percent of the plant community in the Big Four, you should consider reseeding. Before reseeding, it is often helpful to give the pasture a full season of rest to better inventory the plant community before conducting an expensive and risky reseeding.

Alternatively, if you want to manage for bermudagrass, but aren't sure if there is enough to do so, consider these options:

  1. soil-test the pasture to determine nutrient levels;
  2. fertilize to correct phosphorus and potassium deficiencies;
  3. spray herbicide to reduce competition from broadleaf plants; and
  4. fertilize with a minimum of 50 pounds of actual N to promote the growth and spread of existing bermudagrass.

Manage for the forage that you want and you might be pleasantly surprised at the response of your target species. If it does not respond, then replanting may be the best option.