How to Prioritize Pasture When Cutting Expenses on the Ranch
When economic times necessitate "tightening of the purse strings," so to speak, too often livestock producers cut back severely on pasture management and associated expenses. This often leads to the deterioration of pasture resources, the basis of the food source required to sustain the livestock we strive to produce. There is a better approach to managing pastures during lean economic times: develop a prioritized plan of activities whereby effort and expenses are allocated to the activities and resources that produce the greatest return on investment. Below are steps to help you prioritize key activities in your pasture management plan.
Identify the most productive pasture resources for cropland, introduced pastures and native rangeland. Estimate the number of acres in each of these priority land resource categories.
Determine if herbicide applications are needed for optimum forage production. Prioritize herbicide applications over fertilizer applications, especially on introduced pastures. On rangelands (prioritize the most productive areas), herbicide should be considered if potential weed pressure will significantly inhibit forage production.
Prepare to fertilize the most productive introduced pastures and all cropland established for grazing. If soil sampling has not been performed in recent years, collect samples this winter for analysis to determine which soils require the least amount of fertilizer to achieve production goals.
Fertilize Cropland First
The cropland established for grazing purposes is of highest priority to receive fertilizer. Usually grazing cropland pastures are established for growing livestock and secondarily for lactating cows. Only establish the amount of pasture required to meet the needs of these classes of livestock and that you can afford to fertilize correctly (using the soil tests recommendations) for the optimum level of production.
Fertilize introduced pastures
The most productive introduced pastures are the second highest priority to receive fertilizer. Hybrid bermudagrass varieties such as Midland 99, Tifton 85 and Coastal are typically very responsive to nitrogen fertilizer, as is B-Dahl bluestem of the introduced bluestem varieties, and tall fescue. Applications of at least 50 to more than 100 units of actual nitrogen are recommended. If pasture is fertilized, be prepared to spray weeds.
Fertilize early in the growing season for each forage type for all pastures that are deemed a priority for fertilizer applications in the final management plan. Apply herbicides to pastures and rangeland while the primary weed species are immature, typically less than 4 to 6 inches tall. These practices provide for optimum growing conditions for the longest period of time.
Plan and manage grazing of the pastures. Manage for adequate residuals at all times. Do not graze forage too short during any one grazing event (exception perhaps being end-of-season graze-out cropland). Provide adequate recovery for perennial pastures and rangeland.
If hay is required as part of the management plan, purchase hay instead of producing it. Have forage tests conducted on all possible hay purchases. Only purchase hay at the best price per ton of nutrients that closely meet or exceed the nutrient requirements for the classes (and physiological condition) of livestock to be fed. It is best to feed hay that requires no or very little supplemental feed if you are substitute feeding hay for an extended period of time.
If there is still budget available to address the moderately productive pastures and rangelands, continue through the preceding process/steps again while always considering where you will get the "biggest bang for the buck."
Consider weed control
On marginal lands with introduced pastures, consider annual weed control if needed and fertilize at a low rate every other or every third year. This is particularly effective with common or other seeded varieties of bermudagrass and most introduced bluestems. Always be prepared to spray weeds where fertilizer is to be applied.
Match stocking rates
Destock accordingly to match stocking rate to carrying capacity of your adjusted pasture management plan. Maintain and manage only the most productive livestock as forage availability will be more limited.