For Release August 31, 1999

Now Is A Good Time to Evaluate Pasture Condition

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

It’s been an interesting summer. The first couple months were cool and wet, the last couple months warm and dry. Throw that all together, and it averages out to be just about normal. So this would be a good time to get out in those pastures and do a little pasture condition evaluation.

There is no great mystery in performing a pasture evaluation. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a very brave person to do this. You see, in performing a pasture evaluation, especially if it’s a pasture that has your own cattle on it, you are basically evaluating your stocking rates and pasture management. Sure, you’re going to go out there and evaluate your pasture for what sort of vegetation there is and how much. But what you’re really doing is looking at how well you balanced the available forage resources with the needs of the livestock.

The first thing you want to look at is how much grass is present and what kinds of grasses. If you are finding a lot of indiangrass, sideoats grama, and big and little bluestem seed stalks, then this is good. These are some of our more desirable warm season grasses. If you are finding quite a few seed stalks, then you probably have plenty of grass left over to fuel a good pasture burn next spring. Our rule of thumb, in long term pasture management, is to harvest about one third of the total vegetation. The plant needs the remaining two thirds to stay in good shape for next year.

If you are finding very few seed stalks then chances are that you are probably over grazing. If you are also finding a lot of bluegrass, fescue and bromegrass then you have probably been overgrazing for some time and you are also probably burning the pasture too early in the spring. If you are also finding a lot of ragweed and broomweed throughout the pastures, then these are additional indicators of excessive overgrazing.

Pasture managers often look at weeds as a problem. Weeds are not a problem, but merely an indicator of management problems. We also need to differentiate between "weeds" and "native forbs". Broadleaf plants, native forbs, like leadweed and the scurfpeas (wild alfalfa) are desirable native prairie forbs. They have good nutrition value for the cattle and help improve the prairie soil. Ironweed, as well as the aforementioned ragweed and broomweed, are going to be found in every Flint Hills pasture, but become a concern if they start to dominate the late season species composition.

These weeds, as well as many of the woody invaders, really take advantage of a pasture with lots of bare ground and low grass species vigor. Bare ground and low vigor can be a problem around feeding and watering areas or anyplace that cattle congregate. They can also be a factor of the weather. But when we find these indicator plants pasture wide there is no escaping that there is a management problem.

Just as these problems develop over several years, it is going to take several years to fix the problem. It is going to require an aggressive effort by the land owner and pasture manager. Stocking rates will need to be adjusted, sometimes radically for a year or two. I don’t like to completely pull cattle off a pasture, but sometimes it is necessary. There may be a need to treat some trees and brush. Weeds often diminish when the grass can compete, so spraying weeds is seldom necessary. But just like everything else, the first step is to discover where you are and then determine the steps needed to get you to where you want to be!


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