The past 17 years, V. Mac Baldwin has slowly and successfully incorporated summer-annual crabgrass as part of his Yanceyville, NC, grazing operation. He estimates average daily gains of 2-3 lbs/head.
“I’m raising cattle on a grass they love to eat and that loves to grow naturally – especially when other forages don’t want to grow in hot weather,” says Baldwin, who sells grass-fed beef to organic stores and directly to consumers.
He, his wife Peggy and son Craig are gradually converting fescue-based pastures to a summer- and winter-annual mix that gives them a nearly year-round grazing system. The winter annuals are forage rye, ryegrass and crimson clover. As the Baldwins clean up deeded woodland, they apply this system, too.
The family grazes about 800 acres of deeded land and 1,500 leased acres, with about 550 acres in annuals. Baldwin’s original crabgrass stand is still thriving, along with all subsequent plantings.
“Crabgrass is an annual that acts like a perennial. So far, we haven’t seen anything that beats it,” says the cattleman. Throughout summer, the grass sheds seeds that germinate the following spring to re-establish the crop.
The crabgrass and winter annuals can test about 15-17% crude protein and 68-70% TDN in their taller grazing stages. Crabgrass can hit 20-30% crude protein during shorter stages.
The Baldwins’ 500 Charolais cows, plus bred heifers, mostly graze fescue pastures. Their grass-fed steers and open heifers graze annuals.
In late April, after the last frost, Baldwin seeds 3 lbs/acre of crabgrass seed into standing winter annuals using a small seeder mounted on an ATV or pickup. The cattleman uses Quick-N-Big, a variety developed by R.L. Dalrymple. The former Noble Foundation forage agronomist now owns Elstel Farm & Seeds, Ardmore, OK, which produces and sells crabgrass seed.
“I used to skimp on crabgrass seed by using just 2 lbs/acre. But I’ve found that it’s much better to use 3 lbs/acre. The seed is fairly inexpensive – about $8/lb – so for $24/acre for seed, plus a little fuel and labor, I get a tremendous supply of high-quality forage, and it’s ready to be grazed about eight weeks after it’s seeded, depending on rainfall.”
Baldwin has been minimum-tilling his crabgrass pastures in fall when he plants winter annuals. But this spring he’ll also run an aerator over winter annuals. “There has to be some minimum tillage in this system to stimulate the crabgrass seed to germinate fully in late spring and flourish all summer.”
Crabgrass also requires an inch or two of rain in late spring to germinate, he warns. “It has such a strong self-preservation instinct that it refuses to pop out of the ground until it gets enough moisture to ensure that it is going to survive.”
The grass is “a ferocious reseeder,” he says. “When the plants are only 3-4” tall, they’ll start dropping seed and continue all summer.
“We can usually get two to three good grazing rotations – down to hand high – from late June to October with about 1,200 lbs of beef/acre, depending on rainfall. In late August, we start grazing crabgrass paddocks very short as we begin interseeding them with winter annuals.”
He plants 100 lbs of forage rye, 25 lbs of annual ryegrass and 10 lbs of crimson clover seed/acre using an aerator, grain drill and cultipacker hooked in tandem. About every other year, he’ll add 5 lbs/acre of red clover and 1 lb/acre of white clover to add nitrogen.
The winter mix is grazed from Thanksgiving to late May. As those annuals mature and fade, crabgrass sprouts again in early May and is grazed from June to late October. Stockpiled fescue and baled hay fill in the gaps.
The Baldwins produce about 16 million hatching eggs/year on contract and utilize the poultry litter as an all-natural, low-cost fertilizer. The hens create about 2,500 tons of litter/year that have good amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium and organic matter.
For more information, visit www.baldwinbeef.com.