It’s Time to Measure the Forage You Have | Texas Range Report
In November, livestock forage species go dormant. The standing forage in your pastures this month is what will support your cattle until spring. Measure what you have, determine what you’ll need, and buy hay or sell cattle according to what the numbers dictate.
By Charles L. Kneuper, state rangeland management specialist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
We are at the end of the growing season for livestock forage. The grass left in the pastures is expected to carry herds through the coming months. Knowing how much forage you have and knowing how much your herd will need will drive management decisions and will indicate any changes you need to make to your grazing plan.
Now and in the coming months, continue to monitor forage quality. Balancing forage quality with livestock needs is imperative in the production cycle. Further, knowing your forage quality and animal needs will help you make decisions for your winter supplementation program.
Pick up a new pocket calendar to start your record keeping. Rainfall from the first of November to the start of the 2018 growing season will provide an indicator of how next year’s growing season will start. Continue to monitor your key grazing areas and key plants to make sure adequate residue is left to keep your ground covered.
Are you planning to carry out a prescribed burn this winter or early in 2018? Begin preparing fireguards following frost. You certainly want to be ready to go when you get a day that presents the needed conditions for your fire to meet your objectives. Do you have a grazing strategy in place to allow that pasture adequate recovery after the burn?
Just as this report was being developed for The Cattleman, John Stone stepped up to serve as the acting grazing land specialist for the Northeast region and deadlines did not permit us to include that region’s report. You will find the regional reports from our other NRCS grazing lands specialists. Look at the map to find which specialist covers your county. If your county is not covered by one of the specialists, locate the NRCS field office that serves your county at www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov.
By Matt Machacek, USDA NRCS rangeland management specialist
Fall is the time of year to really see if your grazing management plan is working on the ranch. We know the forage produced during the growing season will need to last until next spring if we want to improve our overall forage condition.
Remember that adequate forage residue is required throughout the winter to give our warm-season perennial forages a good start next spring.
It’s a common misconception to think we can graze grass short in the winter. The mistake is in thinking that carbohydrate reserves are stored in the roots of dormant plants.
Now we know that most of the plant reserves for next year’s growth are stored in the crown of the plants, which are above the soil surface.
For tallgrasses such as yellow indiangrass, we recommend a stubble height of 12 inches.
On midgrasses, such as sideoats grama or old world bluestem, leave 6 inches of stubble.
On shortgrasses or bermudagrass, plan to leave 3 inches. See Table 1 for details.
This residue will also help shade out many of the undesirable cool-season weeds that begin their growth in the fall and rob moisture from our warm-season grasses. This will also dramatically lower your winter feeding cost.
The end of the growing season is a great time to analyze your pastures and determine how far you can go into the winter without feeding hay.
As a rule of thumb, when pasture forage is exhausted and you are forced to substitute feed with hay, your cows will require 1 bale per head per month. If you are feeding 3 months of hay to the entire cow herd, this is one quarter of the year. If you would like to eliminate most of this expense, a good starting point would be to reduce your total number of head by one quarter.
Keeping good forage and feeding records every year can help you determine how you have done in the past and allow you to better make stocking rate decisions.
Coastal Prairie Region
By Stephen Deiss, USDA NRCS rangeland management specialist
The news from the Coastal Prairies area is certainly a mixed bag. From much needed, deep moisture gained in parts of our region, to devastation for many ranches, Harvey had an incredible impact on the landscape.
At the time of this writing, the extent of damage to livestock and infrastructure is unclear, especially for those operations in river basins between the Guadalupe and Brazos rivers. Photographs and video taken by aircraft and drones over some ranches do not paint a pretty picture.
However, for those ranches affected by long-term inundation, such a situation causes definite short- to mid-term forage destruction and accompanying problems associated with even traversing the property.
In the longer view, the vegetative community will certainly bounce back, but care must be taken to facilitate recovery, and proper grazing-use principles should be employed.
Leave enough leaf material on forage plants to allow the plants to make their own food. When more than half of a forage plant is grazed off, growth can stop and recovery is slowed.
Find that halfway point on a forage plant with this simple balancing trick. Find your key plant species in an ungrazed area. Cut off a small handful of the plants at the surface of the soil. Tie the handful in a bundle and balance the bundle on your finger. The balance point is the halfway point, showing the 50-percent-leaf material spot on that key species. Measure the length from the cut end to the balance point to determine how far down that species of forage can generally be grazed without causing it harm.
Even during seasons without catastrophic weather events, monitor the vegetation and keep records of which fields your livestock herds are grazing (with dates in and dates out). This information can be reviewed periodically to help identify pastures that might be routinely grazed harder, or conversely, present opportunities within pastures that may have been underutilized.
Concho Valley Region
By Grant Teplicek, USDA NRCS rangeland management specialist
Fall-calving producers are vaccinating, working calves and preparing their bulls for the breeding season.
Spring-calving producers are wrapping up with weaning calves and evaluating their herds, culling cows that are older, poor producers or open, all in preparation for next calving season.
Sheep and goat producers are turning their rams and bucks out for breeding.
Everybody is watching the weather to see if there will be sufficient snow or rain to replenish the underground moisture for spring green-up and grass growth.
Ranchers are taking inventory of their standing forage and evaluating their pastures to plan their grazing for the year to come. A grazing schedule will have the number of days the pasture will be grazed and how long it will be rested before stock are returned. When you are developing your grazing plans for next year, consider how your plans for brush management and range seeding might affect the grazing schedule for those pastures.
Forage production will improve with proper grazing management but decline without it, so it is important to have a grazing plan to follow.
Producers are visiting with their aerial applicators to get on the list for spraying prickly pear in the early spring. Spraying prickly pear will improve pastures not only by controlling the prickly pear but also by eliminating weeds and increasing forage production.
It is also time to take a soil test to be ready to fertilize the improved grass pastures (bermuda and Kleingrass) in the spring. A soil test (available from your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent) is affordable. A good nutrient management plan will potentially save you fertilizer cost for the coming year.
Cross Timbers Region
By Kevin Derzapf, USDA NRCS rangeland management specialist
There are benefits to rotating pastures in the dormant season of November to March. Giving the livestock only one pasture at a time allows us to save higher quality forage in the remaining pastures for later in the winter.
We reduce trailing and livestock impacts across the ranch. We encourage more even grazing distribution across the pasture. Since the grass in the one smaller pasture is grazed down faster and more evenly, it will be easier to determine when to move to the next pasture.
By keeping track of how long the pastures are grazed each year and with how many animals, it can help us predict how much grass we have available to carry us through the winter and into the next growing season.
Leaving some of that grass behind, covering the ground, will help to mitigate freezing temperatures, protect the plants, capture more rainfall, prevent erosion, and reduce weeds next spring. Grass left behind is not wasted. It is fertilizer for the next crop of grass.
Protein content of our dormant forages is typically about 9 percent in November after frost and declines to around 3 percent at the end of winter. In a rotational grazing system, the decline in protein content is not a linear decline straight downhill through the season, but more of a zigzag line.
The quality of the pasture from which you are moving cattle will be lower than the pasture to which you are moving cattle.
If you are feeding free-choice protein you will see the increase in consumption when forage quality declines. If you are feeding cubes or the like, consider that the livestock may need more at the end of grazing a pasture and less upon moving into the next pasture.
If you’re interested, you might consider using fecal sampling to see the actual quality of the forage your cattle are consuming and help select best or least cost feed options. If you’re interested in receiving emails about what’s happening in the area, send me an email at email@example.com.
By Kason Haby, USDA NRCS rangeland management specialist
As we near the end of the growing season, look at the amount of available forage in your pastures. What you have now is what will be available for livestock use through the winter. Estimate how many animal units (AU) you can carry through winter and, if necessary, selectively cull your herd to avoid purchasing hay.
There are several ways to estimate forage production on range and pasture. See the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension publication “Photo Guide to Forage Supplies on Texas Rangelands (EL-5476)” for comparison pictures for estimating forage production. Another method to estimate forage production is this 3-step process:
- Mark off a 1-square-yard area and clip the grazeable forage to the ground in that area.
- Air dry the sample and weigh it in gram increments.
- Multiply the gram weight by 10.7 to determine production of pounds per acre.
For example, 200 grams x 10.7 = 2,140 pounds of forage per acre.
Clip forage in several representative locations around your ranch and average all samples to get the average forage production for the ranch.
To calculate carrying capacity or the total number of AUs your ranch can carry we must know a few things:
- An AU is a 1000-pound cow that consumes approximately 30 pounds of air-dried forage per day, or 10,950 pounds per year.
- What is the target harvest efficiency (HE)? What percent of the available forage do we want our livestock to consume? The rule of thumb is 25 percent on rangeland and 35 percent for improved pastures. These numbers account for trampled and wasted forage and leaving enough cover to protect the soil and the plants (take half, leave half rule).
- How many grazeable acres do you have? Heavy brush and steep or rocky terrain should be excluded from grazeable acres.
Use this formula to calculate the carrying capacity in AU, then convert AU to cows based on your average cow weight.
Carrying Capacity in AUs =
(Forage in pounds per acre) x (0.25 HE) x (Number of Grazable Acres) / 10,950 pounds of forage per AU per year
Carrying Capacity in AUs =
(2,140 pounds of forage per acre) x (0.25 HE) x (500 Grazable Acres) / 10,950 pounds of forage per AU per year = 24 AUs
From this example, we see the 500 grazable acres can carry 24 1,000-pound animal units.
Not everyone has 1,000-pound cows. In this example, we see how to convert the carrying capacity to the weight of the animals we may have.
Determine the average weight of your cattle. Divide that weight by 1,000 pounds (AU equals 1,000-pound animal). Divide your carrying capacity by the result to determine how many of your cattle your range should support.
If your cattle weigh an average of 1,300 pounds, divide 1,300 by 1,000 to get 1.3. In the example above, carrying capacity is 24 AUs. Divide 24 by 1.3 and we see the range in the example can support 18 cows.
Convert 24 AUs to 1300-pound cows = 24 AUs = 18 cows (1,300 pounds/1,000 pounds)
For assistance in estimating forage production on your ranch, contact the NRCS.
High Plains Region
By Clint Rollins, USDA NRCS rangeland management specialist
The 2017 growing season has been the third year in a row that the majority of the Texas Panhandle has seen timely and effective rainfall during the April-to-June period, with above normal rainfall recorded.
The results of this moisture have shown grass forage production at 2- to 3-times normal production. The overall trend on native rangeland has been positive; the amount of bare soil has decreased to below 10 percent on most all range sites with an increase in plant litter and organic matter. This means as each rainfall event occurs, infiltration into the soil profile increases, resulting in more available soil moisture for grass production.
With the increase in grass production, producers need to be aware that the typical windy conditions and low humidity in late winter and early spring will see the potential for devastating wildfires like March 2017. The winter months are a good time to install and/or maintain existing fireguards around pastures and property boundaries prior to the windy season.
The Texas A&M Forest Service has developed an excellent free publication, “Your Personal Wildfire Action Plan.” The intent of this publication is saving lives and property through advance planning.
The Texas A&M Forest Service has personnel specifically trained in wildfire preparedness and they will make on-site visits to evaluate your property and make suggestions to improve the safety of your home. For more information visit the Texas A&M Forest Service website: www.texasfirewise.com.
Northeast Texas Region
District Conservationist John Stone, Quitman, is the acting grazing land specialist for this region. Reach him at 903-763-4222, ext. 3, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
South Texas Region
By Jose Martinez, USDA NRCS rangeland management specialist
For the first time in 3 years, we are experiencing some drought in South Texas. With precipitation falling below what is average for this time of year, we need to understand that the carrying capacity of the land is not the same as in the past years.
If producers are working with the same stocking rate they had in 2016, there is a high chance of land degradation (if animal unit numbers were not conservative already).
This fall comes with the need for a lot of monitoring. Information on forage production changes and body condition scores on bred heifers and cows is going to be crucial for the success of the operation.
Producers also need to be looking out for early calving and be ready to assist and record information for each calf.
Sacrificing a pasture, supplementing feed and relying on a good winter weed crop should be the last resort. In South Texas, we have grass growing potentially 12 months, but December and January are 2 of our least productive months.
With the promise of a wet and cold winter, we must start planning a winter burn for early 2018 and take advantage of the moisture in the ground for the next growing season (February to May).
For assistance on forage monitoring or conducting a prescribed burn, call your local USDA NRCS office to request technical assistance.
Rolling Plains Region
By Matthew Coffman, USDA NRCS rangeland management specialist
After some average precipitation in June, we made it through July with little significant rainfall. As of this writing, the Farmer’s Almanac predicted below-average precipitation through September. There is some relief if their prediction for above-average rainfall in the Rolling Plains in October held true.
If we have done a good job of managing our grasses through the dry summer, then we should have enough plant residue and healthy plants left to use this rainfall and grow some grass before winter. If we can expect another mild winter and late frost like we did last year, it’s possible we could grow forage all the way through November this year.
Evaluate your operation closely before winter sets in. Out in the pasture, our grasses have gone into reproductive mode and seed heads of sideoats grama, blue grama, vine mesquite, plains bristlegrass and sand dropseed should be easily identified.
Be on the lookout for these more preferred forages.
We need to be honest with ourselves about how much grass we have and how many animals we think we can bring through the winter economically. If we are hurting for grass at this point, any cows that weaned a light calf back in early fall should be culled, as should any that are going into winter with a body condition score of less than 5. Any overuse of our pastures now is going to set our grass back next spring.
Look for Texas wintergrass and winter weeds greening up and be prepared to use these while resting other pastures as much as possible.
By Scott Bryan, USDA NRCS rangeland management specialist
Much of the Trans-Pecos has been blessed with beneficial rain since July 4, resulting in an abundance of valuable forage grasses throughout the region. Late summer through early fall represents a key period for forage production. Warm-season grasses are putting on their last flush of growth prior to going dormant for the winter. Unlike other parts of the state, the Trans-Pecos does not produce cool-season forages for grazing. Therefore, the grass produced during the late summer and early fall is crucial for supporting livestock through the winter and spring.
The late fall and early winter is an important time to assess the forage supply of the ranch. No more grass will be produced until next summer, and winter weed crops are not guaranteed. Knowing the amount of available standing forage is crucial for making the correct management decisions, which could include supplemental feeding or even culling some of the herd if there is not sufficient forage to carry them through the winter and spring and into the next growing season.
Although the warm-season grasses are not actively growing during the winter, proper grazing use is still important. The “take-half, leave-half” rule must be followed to ensure sufficient plant material remains to protect the soil and ensure grasses maintain a healthy root system.
By leaving half of the grass plant, it will be healthier and will respond more quickly to precipitation. A 25 percent harvest efficiency is assumed for cattle grazing on rangelands, which means that only approximately 25 percent of the forage produced is assumed to be available for consumption by the livestock. The other 25 percent that is “taken” is due to trampling, defecation/urination, insects and other wildlife, etc.
This means that if 1,000 pounds of forage are produced per acre, a maximum of only 250 pounds is actually available for livestock consumption.
A good method of documenting how much grass the ranch produces and uses throughout the year is by monitoring permanent photo points located in key grazing areas throughout the ranch.
If you would like more information on photo points or would like assistance completing an end-of-the-growing-season forage inventory feel free to contact your local USDA NRCS office. ❚