Both authors are affiliated with the University of Florida. Wallau is an extension forage specialist. Mauldin is an extension agent in Washington County.

The dramatic price rise in farm inputs such as fertilizer, fuel, herbicide, and commodity-based feed has been a recurrent theme of recent conversations with producers and extension colleagues. While calf prices have been strong, they won’t offset higher input costs. Producers will need to carefully evaluate where cutting costs makes good economic sense and where it doesn’t.

While short-term logic may appear sound, neglecting necessary inputs will reduce pasture productivity and, over time, lead to pasture degradation. Resiliency and the capacity to adapt are always essential when working with natural systems. It is in times of hardship we need to be better farmers, find ways to improve efficiency and creative solutions, and overcome financial barriers.

Pasture systems are intrinsically resilient. It is amazing how much abuse some pastures can take and still bounce back. Most problems associated with perennial pasture degradation come from multiple years of overgrazing and the lack of adequate fertilization. This long-term neglect negatively affects productivity in the short run, and ultimately, if not corrected, will result in a situation that necessitates complete pasture renovation – a lengthy and costly undertaking.

The following are some pasture and livestock management points to consider while devising strategies to overcome the challenges of the current year, with minimal impact on pasture and animal productivity. The following comments were compiled based on warm-season perennial pastures in the Southeastern region of the United States, but most of these points can be applied to other types of forage systems in different regions.

Less intense, but more often

Implementing rotational grazing can improve pasture productivity and animal output by about 30%. This, however, does not fix overstocking and other mismanagement issues. It is important to first consider the carrying capacity of the pasture, adjust the stocking rate accordingly, and then implement a rotational grazing system.

Targeting stubble height at about a 40% biomass removal and providing an adequate grazing interval will ensure the best balance between forage production and quality. In contrast, boosting grazing intensity to more than 50% biomass removal with long regrowth intervals can reduce pasture productivity, nutritive value, and animal performance. It may sound counterintuitive to some, but grazing pastures less intensely and more frequently is a better option in terms of forage production and animal performance than harder grazing followed by a longer rest period.

Fertility trade-offs

More than ever, people have been asking how they should approach pasture fertility with current fertilizer prices. Fertilization strategies used for annual forages and those used for perennial forages follow two distinct approaches. Also, fertility management for hay production is quite different than it is for grazing. Annual pastures generally have higher nutrient requirements and are very responsive to fertilization. They also normally have higher forage nutritive value but shorter growing seasons.

In normal years, having about 20% to 30% of a farm dedicated to annual pastures is desirable to fill the gaps in perennial forage production and provide excellent quality feed. While there is considerable expense associated with establishing annual forages, they might still be a better option than feeding hay and supplement alone.

In perennial pastures, fertilization strategies follow a multi-year approach and depend on species and use. High-production forages such as bermudagrass or orchardgrass, for example, will require more nutrients than bahiagrass or tall fescue. Also, while nitrogen will limit production during the current season, continuous lack of potassium, for example, can lead to pasture decline in the long term. In fact, low potassium nutrition is one of the main factors resulting in perennial pasture decline, especially for hayfields where extraction of nutrients is greater.

Hay production removes a high percentage of nutrients, while grazing recycles about 80% of removed nutrients. In well-maintained pastures, where phosphorus and potassium levels in the soil are medium to high, focusing on nitrogen fertilization this year might be the best alternative, without major negative impact to pasture persistence.

Fertilization application decisions should always be based on soil nutrient levels. Alternative sources of nutrients might be an option, but a shortage of by-products or waste products will likely be an issue this year. When considering biological and organic nutrient forms, be aware of mineralization rates and the delayed availability of those nutrients.

An approach frequently discussed in times of high fertilizer prices involves only applying lime to pastures with no additional nutrients. Lime applications can be effective when soil pH is low and base saturation is dominated by toxic aluminum; however, lime is not a fertilizer. Rather, it makes most nutrients more available in the soil. This effect is only seen when the pH is low. If the soil pH is adequate, there is little advantage to liming, and it simply becomes an unneeded expense.

When high fertilizer prices limit the total amount of nutrients that can be purchased, it’s generally better to target the areas that will be most responsive (lowest fertility) than to apply reduced rates across a larger area. Additionally, try to focus fertilizer applications on those forage species that are the most responsive to high fertility.

If you decide not to fertilize this year, consider what long-term effects that lower fertility will have. Be aware of overgrazing – cutting back on fertilization and maintaining the same herd size will likely lead to a negative forage budget and result in problems during future years.

A valuable nitrogen source

Diversifying pasture systems is one of the best strategies to improve resilience and reduce the cost of production. Legumes add nitrogen to the system through biological nitrogen fixation, improve animal performance, and enhance soil quality. Seeding legumes, however, is not an immediate solution and must be planned as a part of a long-term strategy.

Perennial legumes mixed with grasses (for example, bahiagrass and perennial peanut or bermudagrass and alfalfa) take time to establish, and the legume will only transfer nitrogen to the grass crop after a period of time.

Nitrogen fixation is an expensive process for the plant, and legumes don’t just “give” nitrogen to the grasses – it is transferred via mechanisms such as root exudates and tissue turnover, which depend on decomposition and mineralization of organic matter. Annual legumes preceding a grass crop, or even interseeded into perennial pastures, can add nitrogen to the system as well, but this, too, takes time and is not a quick fix. When considering planting legumes, a neutral soil pH (close to 7) and high phosphorus and potassium fertility are necessary.

Other key strategies

Weed control: Given current chemical prices, this might not be the year to declare an all-out war on weeds, but it is still important to be cognizant of developing weed pressures in your pastures. Weed management goes hand-in-hand with the concepts of forage budgeting to avoid overgrazing and fertilizing to keep a healthy pasture.

Weeds are frequently not the problem per se, but a symptom of mismanagement. Discontinuing weed management altogether is probably not wise as weed problems tend to get worse over time when left untreated. There are still some economically viable herbicide options available. Mowing will seldom be a cheaper strategy, especially with higher fuel costs.

Cull hard: Reducing inventory now can be a good strategy to lower forage and feed demand and improve cash flow. Having a defined breeding/calving season allows for easy identification of less productive animals. Open cows or even late-calving cows, which are more likely not to breed back before the end of the breeding season, are good candidates for culling.

Cull cattle prices tend to peak between March and May. Consider taking advantage of that opportunity to market your least productive animals. Keeping only the animals that are the most productive in your system will enhance the overall efficiency of your operation.

Keep the best replacements: Not retaining any replacement heifers could be a way to manage costs but may have negative long-term consequences on herd genetic improvement and will boost the average herd age. A wiser approach would be to keep only the best heifers that have the highest likelihood of reproductive success. If, based on breed type, it is possible to breed heifers younger, the opportunity to remove heifers who are less likely to become pregnant occurs sooner, freeing up forage and feed resources.

Tighten the calving season: Different animal categories and/or those at different stages in the production cycle (bred, open, lactating, and so forth) have varying nutritional requirements. The inability to effectively allocate feed and forage resources is one of the major negatives associated with a year-round breeding season. Shortening the breeding and calving seasons can greatly improve your capacity to manage herd nutrition more judiciously without sacrificing productivity. Having a herd with a short calving season also provides for a more uniform calf crop, which is more desirable from a marketing standpoint.

Have a supplementation plan: The main idea behind reducing inventory and improving the uniformity of nutritional needs is to better balance forage production and demand. Appropriate stocking rates help ensure adequate forage allowance and optimize pasture growth. Overgrazing is at the root of most pasture problems, causing degradation, reducing productivity, and delaying peak growth. Grazing harder can actually lead to more feeding, not less.

Reviewing a ranch’s carrying capacity and reanalyzing the forage budget can show when or if you are likely to have a forage shortage and to what extent. Knowing this in advance can help with planning an efficient supplementation strategy. It is also important to match the herd’s highest nutrient demand to when pastures have the best quality. This improves animal productivity and can further reduce the cost of supplementation.

Hay can be a substantial portion of the supplementation strategy. Unfortunately, hay is notoriously inconsistent in terms of nutritional value. Having a forage analysis performed on your hay allows for any nutritional short comings to be addressed precisely and before problems arise.

Unfortunately, there is no single recipe or silver bullet to address the current high input cost situation. Some of the ideas discussed here are intended to highlight key concepts and get you thinking about how to best apply them to your specific production system. Immediate pasture management decisions can have a long-term impact. In some cases, it may be best to reduce profits in one year to avoid a loss of productivity and larger profit losses for years to come.

In other cases, it might be fine to step back and trim inputs for a year to reduce the cost of production temporarily. The important message is to think ahead and plan so you know what to expect. Sharpen the pencil and analyze the options. There has never been a better time to determine your actual cost of production. If you need help analyzing different alternatives, contact a local extension agent or other trusted adviser and discuss the possibilities.

This article appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 26 & 27.

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