"Do you think of yourself as a beef producer or a grass producer?" a representative from DuPont asked a group of ranchers during his presentation at the Nebraska Cattlemen's Classic. "If you don't grow grass, you can't grow beef."
Craig Alford, a range, pasture and invasives portfolio manager with DuPont, gave a presentation on pasture management during the Nebraska Feedlot and Veterinary Day, which was held for the first-time ever during the Classic.
Alford said every rancher should have a goal to develop more grass for their operation.
"If you have more grass, you can run more cattle, have more hay to cut, and less feed to purchase," Alford said. "You will also have higher weaning weights on your calves, and an overall, more efficient operation."
Proper management is the key to producing more grass and Alford said ranchers need to utilize their grazing management skills on their ranches. Maintaining good soil fertility, and controlling weeds and pests are among the obvious things ranchers can do to produce more grass.
Alford encouraged ranchers to evaluate the condition of their range pastures to determine how they can improve upon what they have.
"It is important to get an idea of what species and grasses are present in the pasture and how much," he said. "Obviously, as range declines, there will be more and more brush species that the cattle won't eat. Producers need to devise a plan to drive the system back to where more of the optimal species exist."
Alford said producers should work toward having native grasses like green needlegrass and blue bunch wheatgrass, and very little of the sage and brush species. He also encourages producers to avoid having invaders and non-native plants like cheatgrass develop on rangeland.
"We are seeing more of it in this area than we used to because of the drought," he explained. "Once it gets established, it is very hard to control and eliminate."
Alford said noxious weeds should be controlled on grazing lands whether it is required by the government or not.
"Noxious weeds can spread rapidly across pastures and can impede cattle grazing in some areas," he said. "In some areas, government cost-share programs are available to landowners to help them manage noxious weeds."
Alford pointed out to producers that properly managing their grazing land can significantly impact their bottom line. In an example he prepared, Alford showed a producer who could run a cow to three acres per month on grazing land rated in excellent condition. If that same grazing land was rated in good condition, the producer could only run a cow to four acres per month, and if it dropped to fair condition, that same piece of land would only handle one cow to 6.7 acres per month. If the pasture was 1,000 acres, a producer could run 333 cows on excellent grazing land, but that figure would drop to 149 cows if that same land was only in fair condition.
"The difference is very significant," he said. "It is very important to maintain an appropriate stocking rate on grazing land. By overgrazing and sneaking through an extra cow or two, you may think you are getting by, but actually it can take the grass at least a couple of years to recover from overgrazing it."
Alford said he recommends to the producer to let cattle utilize 50 percent of the grass, and then move them to a fresh pasture. He also recommends producers record the pasture condition through time to watch for big changes in the condition of the range or the species present.
He explained to the group the best way to monitor change is to drive a big stake in the ground in various areas of the pasture that will be monitored. Each spring, the producer can take digital pictures from all four sides of the stake and analyze them.
"It is a good way to monitor the pasture, and see if any big changes are taking place," he said. "Typically, you will start to see some changes over time and can modify your grazing patterns if you need to."
One simple way to modify grazing is by moving the mineral and salt to different areas of the pasture. Producers who have the ability to manipulate water sources for their cattle should also consider it, Alford said. "Anything that will get the cattle to better utilize the grasses available should also be considered."
If range conditions are deteriorating, producers should consider adjusting their stocking rates, reducing their herd size or moving the herd.
"When we were suffering from drought, some producers looked at moving their herds to areas where grass was more plentiful, like some areas in the Dakotas where there was a good supply of grass," he said.
For producers who are interested in improving their grazing land, Alford encourages them to take the first step and have their soil tested.
"Don't just go with tradition," Alford told the group. "Just because your dad put on nitrogen and phosphorus in equal amounts doesn't mean that is what the pasture needs. Maybe it needs more phosphorus and less nitrogen.
"A soil test is a smart investment if you are considering applying any fertilizer," Alford continued. "It may not make sense to fertilize every pasture you have, but it can be a good return on investment to fertilize some pastures. A good place to start is the hay meadow. I encourage producers to start with the pastures with the best return on investment."
Alford said producers should also consider rainfall, available moistures and nutrients that must be converted to forage when determining how to improve a pasture.
"If you have all these things working in your favor," he said, "this in turn, can be converted to pounds of beef."
He also doesn't encourage producers to tear up an entire pasture and replant it. Range restoration involves removing noxious and poisonous weeds, Alford said. Producers may want to consider spraying the native range as a cost-effective alternative.
"Spraying rangeland is a long-term investment," he said.
"Producers should determine what they have out there and what they are trying to manage," he explained. "They need to identify what plants and pests need to be targeted."
Alford said producers considering spraying should verify pests on the labels of the products available for use, and manage the product correctly.
"They should also evaluate precautions on the product label, grazing restrictions, environmental hazards, recropping intervals, volatility, temperature requirements, and any other issues," Alford continued. "Also evaluate and follow the proper timing for application."
Once a method is applied, Alford encouraged the group to give the method time to do its job.
"Make sure and allow a proper interval for evaluation of treatment whether it be chemical, mechanical, biological or burning," he said.
Producers should do whatever they can to improve their own rangeland, Alford said. "It is far cheaper to maximize production on their own rangeland, than to buy or lease more rangeland," he said.