This column highlights common questions asked by producers of Noble consultants.

Funderburg eddie
Soils and Crops Consultant / The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation

The topic of pasture improvement is broad, so we narrowed it for the sake of brevity. For purposes of this article, we will discuss improvements for introduced pastures. These considerations may not completely fit native pasture systems or producers with major wildlife management goals.

No matter what your forage type, setting a proper stocking rate is vital. Overstocking leads to a downward spiral that is difficult to exit. Overstocking causes livestock to consume forage top-growth before it has adequate time to manufacture a carbohydrate supply to build its root system.

Without adequate roots to supply the top-growth with water and nutrients, yield is reduced. This causes the grass stand to decline until it will support far fewer animals than it would before the overgrazing cycle began.

For example, if the forage base can support 100 animals in peak condition, and it is stocked with 150 animals, the forage base will decline fairly rapidly to where it will only support 75 animals.


If it is still stocked with 150 animals, the forage base declines more rapidly to the point where it will only support 50 animals. The spiral will continue until there is almost no forage base left unless the cycle is broken.

The only way for forage to recover is rest. To avoid this spiral, consider setting your stocking rate at about 75 percent of what would be considered optimal in average rainfall conditions. This gives you some buffer for drought. If you grow too much forage, you can bring in extra stockers or cut it for hay.

When pastures decline, weeds encroach. The definition of a weed is a plant out of place. In a pasture, a weed is a plant that cattle do not eat, or eat only at certain growth stages, and causes problems by competing with desirable plants when the weeds are at an unpalatable stage.

An example in our area is western ragweed. Cattle will eat ragweed when it is very small. However, when the ragweed gets larger, cattle will not eat it, and they become very competitive with desirable forages.

Therefore, we consider western ragweed a weed – even though cattle will eat it at certain growth stages for a relatively short time – because the end result is competition with desirable forage plants.

The best way to control weeds is proper stocking. If the pasture is in good condition, it is difficult for weeds to establish in the field. However, if weeds are out of control, they must be dealt with either mechanically or chemically.

Mechanical weed control usually involves mowing. Mowing will retard the growth of weeds but will also mow down desirable forage. Mowing is usually more expensive than herbicides. We generally don’t recommend mowing for weed control unless a producer is unwilling to use herbicides.

Weed control, when needed, is very easy to justify economically. Several studies support the old saying that if you control a pound of weeds, a pound of grass will grow in its place. Scout your pastures while weeds are small and determine if you need to spray.

Properly identify weeds. If chemical weed control is needed, select a herbicide based on a combination of crop and environmental safety, efficacy and price. If you are properly stocked, you should not have to spray every year. If weeds are a constant problem, there is a high probability that you are overstocked.

Introduced pastures may also be improved through fertilization. Many producers fertilize only with nitrogen and wonder why the forage does not respond as well as they think it should. One reason is that the soil may be deficient in nutrients other than nitrogen.

The best way to determine if this is the case is with a soil test. If your soil is deficient in other nutrients, such as phosphorus or potassium, the plants will not efficiently use nitrogen and you may not get the expected boost from nitrogen fertilizer.

If your soil is low in either phosphorus or potassium, or your pH is too acidic, correct these problems. Do not fertilize at all if you are not willing to fertilize correctly. It is better to fertilize less acreage properly than fertilize the entire place inefficiently.

One more technique that may improve pastures is introducing other species into the fields. This can lengthen the growing season, increase overall yields and increase forage quality. However, it requires more management.

You must choose compatible species for your primary forage crop, plant them correctly and on time, fertilize them correctly and terminate them if necessary. For example, in our area bermudagrass and ryegrass are often grown together. It is an excellent mix if handled correctly. However, if the ryegrass is allowed to grow unchecked in the late spring, it will reduce the bermudagrass stand.

The ryegrass must be removed in May, either by haying or heavy grazing, to prevent this damage. This is just one example of how multiple species must be managed correctly to ensure the health of the pasture.

This article is not meant to be a comprehensive look at pasture improvements. It is meant to get you thinking about ways to improve your forage base on your farm or ranch. A profitable cattle operation starts with a good forage base.  end mark