Of the many working pieces to running a successful cattle operation, one cog in the machine must be top-notch in order to achieve a natural ebb and flow: quality grass. In a National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) webinar titled “Forage systems – finding the right fit,” cattle industry leaders and forage experts discussed the importance of implementing the right forage system for you while lowering your inputs.

Freelance Writer
Mayzie Purviance is a freelance writer based in Montana.

University of Tennessee Beef and Forage Center Director Gary Bates kicked off by bringing up pasture systems in the Southeast and mid-South. He listed off some characteristics of a good pasture, which included a long grazing season, yield, persistence, quality, inexpensive cost, easy establishment and easy management.

“The forages you choose are really going to depend on where you are in the nation,” Bates said, specifically the eastern mid-South. Bates referenced a paper by Dr. Matt Sanderson on stability of production and plant species diversity in managed grasslands, which zeroed in on 175 different mixtures of grasses and legumes. He summarized this paper simply and said the right species and mixtures of grasses and legumes matters more than the number – quality over quantity.

“Part of the challenge we have when it comes time to developing a forage system is making sure we choose the right mixtures and not just pile-mix species on top of species,” Bates said. “We have to make sure we have a plan.”

Bates said some of the most important criteria when selecting a successful forage system is obtaining certain levels of forage yield and its distribution while keeping cost in mind.


He emphasized different principles for forage selection and said a perennial grass is the base of a solid forage system, and recommended tall fescue. Another suggestion was to build your forage system up with legumes such as white clover, red clover and alfalfa.

“We get an improved forage quality when we start adding those legumes to those grass pastures,” Bates said. “We’re going to improve the protein content. We’re going to improve the energy content. From there, we’re going to get improved production from the animals grazing on that pasture.”

Bates said more benefits of legumes include a decreased need for nitrogen and a longer grazing season. The goal is to produce forage at near-constant rate all year, and that’s not possible if you only use one forage species.

He also expressed the importance of catering to cool- and warm-season grasses, but to do so carefully. Bates favors having 75% of your acreage dedicated to cool-season grazing and 25% for warm-season grazing. He also mentioned that some people like to mix their cool- and warm-season grasses together on the same pasture.

“My experience has been: If you’re trying to grow cool- and warm-season grasses in the same pasture, cattle tend to prefer the cool-season grasses, so they tend to graze those out,” Bates said. “You’ve got to make sure you control the grazing management; otherwise, they’re going to graze out in the cool-season grasses, and you’re going to lose the stand of that grazing system.”

Bates concluded his lecture by hitting the high points: Diversify your forage system, have a cool- and warm-season program, and use legumes in every pasture.

Western grazing

Gene A. Fults, a rangeland management specialist with the USDA-NRCS, gave insight on raising a successful forage system in the western U.S.

“There are a lot of rough edges out there in the central and western United States in these rangeland areas,” Fults said. “Often, it’s not real easy to make a forage system fit in, but there’s some daring people out there who have been trying to do that for many years now.”

Fults said what gives the land those rough edges are “what the cows share the land with,” such as bears and other wildlife.

He said this part of the country makes up 1.94 billion acres of surface area; 406 million of that is used as rangeland with 121 million acres of pastureland and 57 million acres of grazed forestland. In other words: The West is not lacking potential forage area.

“An idea of the forage system is to use those mixtures of species that’s going to achieve the nutrient requirements these grazing animals need,” Fults said.

He explained that one of the weak links in managing a forage system is the ever-changing calendar of ranch events.

“Plants are changing every day, the quality and quantities. The animal changes her nutritional requirements all the way through her life cycle – so your forage system is a constantly moving target,” Fults stated. “You have to really pay a lot of attention to what’s going on out there.”

Fults suggested checking out literature from different universities. He also used the rumen of a cow as an analogy.

“The rumen is as important to this heifer as what a well-managed forage system is to the ranch,” Fults taught. He said you can manipulate the rumen by providing the right amount of diet, nutrients and supplements.

“The same concept is what you want to apply to managing your forage systems on the ranch,” Fults said.

He suggested using a calendar and getting all your ideas and thoughts about your forage system down on paper. On his calendar, he had activities such as calving, breeding, hay curing, feeding, animal health, culling, weaning and monitor in one column with your number of animals in the next column, followed by months.

Each rancher is a systems ecologist, meaning they are a livestock operator, landowner and land manager. Fults said implementing a strong ecosystem theory enhances forage system management due to the possibilities to predict the reactions of the system parts to changed conditions.

Another point was understanding the spatial scale which the beef operation occurs in, including understanding and monitoring a logistical spatial scale as well as a feeding spatial scale and land resource hierarchy.

Just trying to find the right fit, looking at that ranch calendar, doing the right spatial scale, understanding your systems ecology, still using those basic stocking rate principles of proper stocking rate kind of animal proper distribution and the timing of grazing will contribute to a successful forage system on your ranch.