For Release November 7, 2000

Pastures Will Need Some Extra Care in 2001

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

Even though cattle have just been off pasture for about a month, we need to start making plans for next yearís grazing and pasture management. It doesnít take very long, driving around the area, to see that we came out of the 2000 grazing season with the pastures in bad shape. It will take a fair amount of inspecting and planning, between now and May, to make sure that we donít make matters worse next year.

Whatís the current situation? We came through the May to September period with about half of our normal rainfall. Most of the rain that did fall, fell during the first half of the growing season. In the more critical last half of the growing season we had very little rainfall and extremely high temperatures. The last half of the growing season is when the plant needs to get itself prepared for winter and next yearís growth. The grass plants were drained down in the first half of the grazing season, and never had a chance to recover.

The recent rains have started to recharge the soil moisture. The rains have also started some of the springs running again for livestock watering. But the grass plants are now dormant. They went into that dormancy in a very weakened state. When a grass plant is stressed like this, it doesnít just lose above ground growth. It also loses root mass and crown size. The entire size of the plant is reduced. Even if we do have normal rainfall and temperatures through the winter, spring and summer, we know that the pastures are going to produce about 30% less forage than normal. If we have additional temperature or moisture stresses, that reduction will be even greater.

Now, letís throw another ingredient into the mix. Over the past 30 years, cows and calves have been getting bigger. It is generally felt that the average cow in our cow herds is 20% to 30% bigger today than they were in 1970. Bigger cows eat more grass. Birth weights, of calves, have increased some, but the real jump has been in the weaning weights of calves. You can look at your own calf crops and see how much bigger the calves are in the fall now, compared to 30 years ago. Bigger cows produce more milk. More milk helps get calves growing bigger, faster. Bigger calves eat more grass.

While all this increase in cattle size has been occurring, the grass plants have basically not changed. We still have the same grasses out in the pasture. They are still producing as much forage, per acre, as they were 30 years ago. Unfortunately, we are still stocking cow/calf herds at the same rate we were in 1970. According to the Bluestem Pasture report, published every April by the Department of Agriculture, cows with spring calves were being stocked at the rate of one pair for every seven acres. This is a heavier stocking rate than the grass can support in the long run. Is it any wonder that our pastures are looking so bad this fall?

The single most important management factor that you can do to improve the quality of your pastures next year, is to reduce stocking rate. I feel that you need to stock cows with spring calves at the rate of a minimum of 12 acres of grass. Remember, thatís grass acres, not pasture acres. In the long run we really need to sit down, look at how much grass your pastures are producing, look at the size of your cows, and how big of calves you wean. Then we can create a pasture management plan that will protect your pastures over the long run. The native pastures are a valuable resource. They produce food on land that isnít suited for grain production. But if we are going to keep those pastures from becoming gully riddled weed patches, we are going to need to manage them every bit as intensely as our grain crops!


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