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6 Practices to Sustain Pasture Growth
By: Raylene Nickel
Conserving grass trumps maximizing beef production at Gary and Sue Price’s 77 Ranch near Blooming Grove, Texas. Their conservative practices give their operation the resilience needed to sustain a stable number of cattle – even in drought years.
Improved grass and soil health result, too, from their work. In recognition of their efforts, they were named the 2012 recipients of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Environmental Stewardship national award.
The Prices run 200 commercial beef cows and manage 1,900 acres of rangeland that is primarily native tallgrass prairie. Some of the pastures are allocated to fall grazing for calves since the Prices precondition calves on grass for 40 to 60 days after weaning in the fall.
“We could run more cattle, but we’d feel a negative impact that would go along with that,” says Gary Price. “We’re not looking at maximum production; rather, we aim for optimal long-term sustainability.”
Such sustainability involves having enough standing grass in any given year to carry the herd through unexpected dry weather. In the severe drought of 2011, for instance, they had enough standing forage to sustain the cattle without having to buy hay or feed.
Because maintaining abundant grass in the pastures helps conserve soil health and moisture, it contributes to a resilient and continuing growth of more grass.
“We have no control over how much it rains, but we can do things to keep the moisture that we do get,” says Price. “It takes grass to make grass. When there’s plenty of standing grass, the cattle then trample it into the ground, which helps build soil organic matter and conserve moisture.
“The trampled grass covers the ground,” he says, “and this helps us avoid bare earth. Bare ground is our number one enemy.”
When ground is bare, hot weather can scorch soil life and plant roots. “Information from the Natural Resources Conservation Service has shown that when the air temperature is 104˚F., the temperature of the soil to a depth of 4 inches can be as high as 140˚F.,” says Price. “Such a high temperature sterilizes the ground. To avoid that, we depend upon maintaining a grass thatch to hold moisture and to shade the ground as much as possible.”
Overgrazing combined with scorched soil can kill grass roots. “When roots die, the plants can’t use sunlight and even the small amount of moisture that we do get,” he says. “We’re in the business of converting solar energy to plant material and selling it through cattle. Yet because grass makes grass, it’s never wasted if it’s not run through a cow.”
The Prices use six management practices to ensure sustained grass growth as well as soil, livestock, and economic health.
1) Maintain a light stocking rate.
“Our stocking rate is lighter than that of most other producers in our area,” says Price.
A typical stocking rate in their locale is one cow per 8 acres. The Prices stock at a rate of 75% and even less than that, especially in the face of continuing effects of drought.
Invasions of grasshoppers also tend to accompany drought. Since these insects have the potential to consume grass, a light stocking rate also ensures cattle will have sufficient grazing despite grasshopper consumption.
Maintaining a light stocking rate is particularly important on those pastures that were poorly managed before being acquired by the Prices. They have built their ranch slowly over a period of decades, purchasing some overgrazed pastures recently.
“In many cases we’re managing someone else’s managerial footprint,” says Price. “If some mesquite pastures have experienced erosion, with soil ending up in the Gulf of Mexico, we’re not going to fix that loss. Because of that, we have a real mottled look to the land we manage.”
2) Rotate pastures. They rotate two herds through 30 pastures, giving grass six to eight weeks of rest between grazings.
3) Aim for slow, sustained grass growth. To build soil fertility, they rely on livestock manure and urine, as well as decaying plant residue.
4) Build populations of native grasses. Their management system permits native grasses to thrive. These resilient grasses include big and little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, and side-oats grama.
“We use the presence of these plants as indicators to show how well we’re doing in terms of managing the grasslands,” says Price. “These native grasses have a great deal of resiliency. Big bluestem, for instance, can grow to a height of 6 feet and have extensive roots reaching to depths of 4 or 5 feet.
“That type of grass provides the kind of grazing forage that will carry us through a drought,” he says. “The native grasses also provide important nesting habitat for quail and wild turkey.” (See “Income Diversity” story.)
5) Supplement winter grazing. To provide winter grazing for livestock, the Prices rely on cool-season grasses like Texas wintergrass and stockpiled standing forages. They do supplement cattle, grazing the matured grass with a 38% protein supplement.
6) Add value to livestock. “Rather than just selling calves by weight on the commercial market, we look for ways to add value to the cattle,” says Price. Calves are preconditioned and age- and source-verified. They’re then sold in load lots into all-natural niche markets.
Conservative use of grass is paying off in the long run. “By maintaining a light stocking rate, we’re increasing soil health over time,” says Price. “We’re also improving viability. We can make it through a drought without having to sell down the herd.”