A buck chases a doe through plots of wildlife forages being evaluated at the University of Florida’s North Florida Research and Education Center. Photo Courtesy of Holly Ober
I know it feels too hot outside to talk about hunting season or cool-season food plots, but planting time will be here before you know it and now’s the time to start preparing. The recommended planting date for practically all cool-season forage crops in Northwest Florida is October 1 – November 15. Assuming adequate soil moisture, planting during the first half of the range is preferred. Between now and planting time there are several factors that need to be considered and addressed.
Invasive and/or Perennial Weed Control
Deer and other wildlife species utilize many soft/annual “weeds” as forage so controlling them is usually not a major concern. But from time to time unwanted perennials (grasses and woody shrubs) need to be controlled. An unfortunate and all too common example of and unwanted perennial is cogongrass – a highly invasive grass that should always be controlled if found. Effective control of perennial weeds, like cogongrass generally involves the use of herbicides. Late summer/early fall is a very effective time to treat unwanted perennials. Fortunately, this coincides well with the transition between warm-season and cool-season forages. If you have unwanted, perennial weeds in your food plots get them identified now and controlled before you plant your cool-season forages.
Typically the white, fluffy seadheads shown on the cogongrass above are not visible this time of year. Cogongrass is pale green and appears as leaves coming straight out of the ground – no visible stem. It typically has a white midrib that is slightly off-center in the leaves. The leaf margins are very rough/sharp especially when the felt from the top of the leaves downward. If you suspect you might have cogongrass, contact your county agent for conformation and follow their control recommendations.
Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin
Soil Fertility Management
In my experience, the most common cause for poor plant performance in food plots is inadequate soil fertility. Before planting, collect and submit soil samples from each of your food plots. Laboratory analysis of the samples will let you know the fertilizer and lime requirements of the upcoming cool-season crop. It is very important to have the analysis performed prior to planting so performance hindering issues can be prevented. Otherwise, during the growing season, by the time you realize something is wrong, it will likely be too late to effectively address the problem. This is particularly true if the issue is related to soil pH. To affect soil pH in a timely manner lime needs to be incorporated into the soil. Incorporation is impossible after the new crop has been planted. Soil analysis performed at the University of Florida’s Extension Soil Testing Lab cost $7 per sample. Your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Agent can assist you with the collection and submission process as well as help you interpret the results.
Variety Selection & Seed Sourcing
It takes time to find the best products/varieties. Just because forage seeds are sold locally, doesn’t mean that the crop or specific variety is well suited to this area. The high temperatures and disease pressure associated with Florida, even in the “cool-season” mean that many products that do very well in other parts of the country struggle here. Below are some specific forages that are favored by wildlife (specifically white-tailed deer) and generally well adapted to Florida. You may discover that these varieties are not sitting on the shelf at the local feed & seed. Often local suppliers can get specific varieties, but they must be special ordered, which adds time to the process. Hence the need to start planning and sourcing seed early.
If you are debating trying food plots on your property for the first time, please carefully consider the following. Food plots are not easy. Making productive food plots that provide a measurable, positive impact to the wildlife on your property takes considerable time, effort, and money. Considering this, food plots really only make sense when viewed as habitat improvements that provide long term benefits to multiple wildlife species. If you are looking for nothing more than a deer attractant during hunting season, food plots are not a very practical option. For more information on getting started with food plots contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Office and check out the reference below.
If you have pastures or hay fields, weeds will always be an issue. Good fertility and grazing management will go a long way towards keeping weeds in check and these factors should be evaluated and addressed as a means of weed prevention. However, chances are that from time to time it will become necessary to use herbicides to control problem weeds. There are many excellent herbicides available for use in pastures and hay fields. Thankfully, when selected and used correctly, these products are an economically sound way to control most of our problem weeds.
Caution: the general effectiveness of these herbicide products can cause producers to become somewhat nonchalant when it comes to management decisions surrounding their use. As an Extension Agent, I often get the call or text, “What’s best for killing (insert problem weed here)?” There needs to be much more to the conversation than the desired one or two-word answer. Herbicides are a management tool, and their usage should be based on their ability to add value to your operation.
Selecting the wrong herbicide for the job or applying a product in a manner that limits its efficacy virtually guarantees a negative economic impact. Some recent conversations I’ve had with experienced pasture managers have reminded me that we can all stand a reminder on how to maximize the efficacy and overall value associated with our usage of pasture/hay field herbicides. The following are a few key principles to help you maximize the value realized out of your herbicide program.
Know your enemy – weeds
If you don’t know exactly what weed(s) you are trying to control, planning and delivering an effective herbicide program is nearly impossible. No single herbicide controls all weeds. To even begin selecting the best herbicide option for your situation you must know what weeds you are trying to control. Even if weed identification doesn’t excite you, don’t skip this step in the process. Your County Extension Agent is available to help you through the entire process, including weed identification.
Always consider forage tolerance when selecting a herbicide
After you have identified your problem weeds you can begin to determine what products will provide effective control. Be careful, not all pasture herbicides are safe for all types of pasture grass. This consideration requires that you understand what your forage base is composed of. Bahiagrass, bermudagrass, and crabgrass are all common warm season forages in NW Florida and they each tolerate various herbicides differently. To further complicate matters it is not unheard of for all three of these species to be growing intermixed in the same field. If you are controlling weeds in broadleaved forages (perennial peanut, clover, etc.) forage tolerance is a huge concern – very few pasture herbicides can be used safely on broadleaf plants. Failing to consider forage tolerance to herbicides can be a very costly mistake. Herbicide injury can cause substantial production loss or even complete stand loss.
Always consider the residual effects of herbicides
Many of the most effective pasture herbicides have a residual component. This means that the product will continue to provide herbicidal activity for an extended period (this varies product to product and with environmental conditions) after its initial application. Generally, this characteristic serves to enhance weed control, but it can cause significant issues when not properly accounted for. Commonly, these potential issues are addressed on herbicide labels as “plant back restrictions” or the amount of time after the application of an herbicide until it is safe to plant various crops in the treated area.
Crop rotations have made row-crop producers accustomed to paying close attention to plant back restrictions. Livestock and hay producers more commonly operate with a perennial forage base. However, residual herbicide issues can arise when warm-season pastures are over-seeded with cool-season annual forages. Many common, summer applied, pasture herbicides can potentially damage fall planted winter annuals.
This field, being harvested for baleage, is comprised of a fairly even mix of bahia, bermuda, and crabgrass. Their is also a mixture of annual and perennial weeds in this field. This mixture of species makes product selection and application timing fairly complex. Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin
After consideration of the three points above, it is possible to determine what product(s) are suitable for your situation. Once the suitable options have been identified, product price becomes a key point to consider. Product price should be evaluated in terms of cost per acre, considering application rate. With a known herbicide cost per acre, be sure that forage quantity and/or quality improvement associated with the herbicide application financially justifies the application. Be sure to remember that benefits provided by effective herbicide use can and should last many years.
A perfectly selected product applied incorrectly will likely not achieve the desired weed control or financial return. The following are a few considerations to help ensure/improve the efficacy of pasture herbicides. This is by no means an exhaustive list, simply some points that I have commonly and/or recently seen producers fail to consider.
Use the correct rate
More is not always better and less only saves money if the weeds are still controlled. Use the labeled rate. In the event a range of rates appears on the label, see comments below on spray timing. To know you are using the correct rate, your application equipment must be correctly calibrated. Your county Agricultural Extension Agent can help with this process.
Always follow label recommendations. That said, generally speaking, herbicide efficacy will be improved by adding 0.25-0.50% (by volume, of the total spray mixture) Non-Ionic Surfactant. This translates to 0.64-0.32 oz/gal of spray mixture or 1qt/50gal – 1qt/100gal of spray mixture. In the big scheme of things, surfactant is inexpensive and is generally always a good investment.
Spray timing is crucial
Determining the most effective timing for herbicide applications is very closely related to knowing the specific weeds you are facing. It is generally more cost effective to control annual and new (first year) perennials earlier in their growing season. Waiting later into the growing season allows weeds to become stronger and make seed. Weeds may be controlled after seed set (often requiring higher herbicide rates), but in most cases there will be subsequent generations to deal with. Spraying earlier in the growing season also allows for weeds to be controlled before they have a chance to negatively impact that season’s forage production. Timing is even more crucial when it comes to controlling established perennial weeds. The ideal timing varies by species and situation and should be confirmed before spraying. In general, these weeds are most effectively controlled with late-summer/early-fall herbicide applications.
Regardless of species, herbicide efficacy is reduced when weeds are stressed at the time of application. Post emergence herbicides (the vast majority of pasture products are in this category) are most effective when applied to “happy,” actively growing weeds.
Herbicides can be very effective, especially when their application is timed well. The hayfield pictured here was sprayed one time early this summer. Note the unsprayed area to the left, the entire field looked like that last summer. Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin
Again, this was not an exhaustive list of the considerations that need to be made prior to an herbicide application; only an attempt to address some of the points I have seen producers overlook this summer. Always read and follow herbicide labels – the label is the law.
Herbicides are effective tools that when used properly can have a positive economic impact on your operation. Please take the time to carefully evaluate your situation and make well informed decisions to ensure that your weed control efforts are as successful as possible.
For a more in-depth explanation of any of the topics addressed in this article or other questions relating to pasture/hayfield weed control please contact your county’s Agricultural Extension Agent.
A defined breeding/calving season results in a more uniformed calf crop and more management options for both large and small herds. Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin
There is a mountain of good research data out there that shows that one of the best cattle herd management strategies is a defined breeding season. The breeding season should be less than 120 days, and ideally should be 60 – 90 days to see all the associated management benefits. If you are unclear regarding the benefits of a defined breeding season, see the links at the bottom of the page or give your County Agricultural Agent a call. If you have heard all the reasons why you should implement a defined breeding season, but still have no plans to do so, then please consider the following recommendations.
When you leave the bull in with the cows year-round, you have created a situation that is perfect for hiding under-performing cows. The hallmark of a defined breeding season is to set an annual deadline when cows are kept or culled based on pregnancy status. Without the deadline it is easy for cows to fly “under the radar” with ever increasing calving intervals. Under-performing cows – cows that fail to wean a calf EVERY YEAR are financial liabilities.
Regardless of your management system or level of inputs, cattle that generate negative returns won’t work. The situation compounds over time. The longer you keep under-performing cows around the more financial damage they do. The long-term financial viability of your cattle enterprise can depend heavily on your ability to identify and remove under-performing cows.
Think about it like this – the average carrying cost per cow is $600/yr. (if this sounds high, sit down and put a pencil to it) with 550 lbs. of calf weaned each year. In this scenario, the calf needs to sell for $1.09/lbs. in order for the cow to “pay her bill” for the year. With this same scenario, weaning a calf every 18 or 24 months the breakeven price goes up to $1.63/lbs. and $2.18/lbs. respectively. With current calf prices in the neighborhood of $1.50/lbs. and expected to decline, you can see how cows that calve less than once a year just won’t work.
If you are going to have a year-round breeding season, what can you do to identify cows that aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain?
- Individually ID all of your brood cows. You need to know exactly which cow you are looking at.
- Record calving dates. Writing tag numbers on a paper calendar is a simple way to start.
- Cull cows that don’t calve within one year. One year from the previous calving date have her pregnancy checked. You may market her differently if she is bred, but she should be culled either way.
Most folks will be fine with the first two points; it’s the culling that people don’t like. Not culling is a bad decision, but these are your cows, and your call. If you follow just the first two steps for a few years, what you will likely begin to see is that those cows you thought you would help by giving them “another month or two” will continue to increase their calving interval as time goes on. At best, they will hold steady. It is highly unlikely that the interval will shorten, unless an outside factor, like inadequate nutrition that is causing the problem is addressed.
If a substantial portion of your herd is not giving you a calf every 365 days, you need to evaluate your management system, and find the limiting factor. Look at nutrition, age of cows, and breeding soundness of the bull first. Biologically, during her productive life, a cow is perfectly able to have a calf every year. Regardless of management practices, there will always be individual cows that won’t perform well in your operation. These are the ones that you can’t afford to allow to hide in your year-round breeding system.
Defining a breeding season is the best option, but if that’s not going to happen, implement a system that enables you to track each cow’s calving interval. Identifying and culling under-performing cows will prevent continued investment in cows that aren’t generating positive returns.
For more discussion on this topic and other aspects of herd reproductive management, attend Beef Cattle Basics Session 2 on Tuesday May 8.
To read more about this topic, use the following links:
Cows gathered around a hay feeder in Washington County. This has been an all too common scene this winter while cattle and cattlemen alike wait on cool-season forages, which have gotten off to a slow and rocky start this year. Photo credit: Mark Mauldin
Cool-season annuals (ryegrass, small grains, clovers, etc.) are a vital part of our forage systems here in Northwest Florida and throughout the Southeast. Generally speaking, cool-season annuals are the highest quality forage we are able to produce. The significance of these forages is evidenced by the fact that many producers time their calving seasons so that the herd’s period of peak nutritional demand coincides with the peak production period of cool-season forages.
A tough season for cool-season forages
The recommended fall planting window (October 1 – November 15) was abnormally dry, forcing most producers to plant later than recommended. Later plantings force seedlings to emerge to colder temperatures (soil and air) and shorter days, with fewer hours of sunlight each day. Both of these factors cause forages to get off to very slow starts. Even ambitious producers that planted early, before the drought set in, faced significant challenges. Worst-case scenario, early plantings germinated and then died during the prolonged dry period. Best-case scenario, plant growth was so limited by dry conditions that expected plant performance advantages associated with timely planting have only recently become noticeable.
To further compound the situation, when the rain finally came, cold conditions (brutally cold by Florida standards) came with it. Keep in mind, the forages in question are referred to as “cool-season” not “cold-season.” While we generally are not concerned about Florida winter temperatures killing these plants, truly cold conditions can damage them, and will certainly prevent them from peak performance. In other words, forages that got off to a slow start from limited moisture were further delayed by the extended cold weather this year.
As growing conditions have improved in recent weeks the significance of planting date has become more evident in this Washington County ryegrass. These images were taken on 2/15/18, all within 10 minutes and 100 yds. of each other. None of these fields have been grazed. Photo credit : Mark Mauldin
Finally, growing conditions have improved considerably recently. Moisture has been adequate, even excessive this past week, and temperatures have warmed considerably. These factors combined with the lengthening days have really kicked forages into gear.
Key Forage Management Considerations
- Be patient; don’t graze your forages too soon. Let forages accumulate adequate leaf area/height before grazing. Ryegrass and small grains need have 8 to 12 inches of growth before grazing.
- Don’t graze forages too close. Removing all or nearly all leaf area greatly reduces the plants’ ability to regrow after grazing. The more leaf area left the faster the plants will regrow. The concept of “Take Half, Leave Half” is good to keep in mind when determining grazing height. Never graze ryegrass or small grains shorter than 3 inches, if regrowth if desired.
- Maximize forage utilization by implementing some form of controlled grazing. When cattle are allowed continuous access to forages, they will graze preferentially and trample more forage. When access is restricted by space, time, or both, cattle will graze more efficiently and forage utilization will increase.
- Allocate forages strategically. Cool-season annuals have a very high nutritional value. When they are in short supply, reserve them for animals that have the highest nutritional demands; lactating females and/or growing animals. This practice can greatly increase the value cool-season annuals bring to your operation, but it requires the ability and willingness to sort and manage cattle in different groups.
- Don’t forget about soil fertility. Maintaining adequate soil fertility will bolster plant performance. In many cases the performance of under fertilized forages will not be sufficient to warrant the initial establishment cost. Additionally, stressors, like nutrient deficiencies, can prompt annuals to forgo vegetative growth for reproductive growth, and set seed earlier than they otherwise would have.
- Maximize the growing season of annual forages. When annual plants make seed they stop vegetative growth. If conditions remain favorable and forages are able to “get ahead of the cows” be prepared to adjust stocking rates and/or controlled grazing practices to delay seed production for as long as possible, by allowing cattle to keep forages “toped-off”. As we get later into the spring, consider stockpiling forages planted on prepared ground and grazing over-seeded forages harder to prevent damage to the underlying perennial forages as they break dormancy.
[important]I understand. You’re tired of feeding so much hay, you’re past ready to turn out onto some grazing, your cows are tearing through the fence to get to something green, but that doesn’t mean you can throw open the gate and walk away. Years with poor growing conditions call for better management than years when conditions are optimal. The financial investment associated with establishing forages is the same regardless of the production; do what you can to maximize your return on investment.[/important]
Distribution of cool-season forage growth during a “normal” year. We are just entering the major growth period for the majority of our cool-season forages. Don’t give up on management; take full advantage of the remainder of the growing season. Image from: Forage Systems for Stocker Cattle, UGA Extension Bulletin 1392.
We don’t know how long growing conditions will remain favorable. Take steps now to ensure that your cool-season forages are able to bring as much value to your operation as possible. Even if it seems like your forages are really under-performing this year, don’t give up on management. Well managed cool-season annuals still have several months of growth left. There is still time to produce a substantial amount of nutrition for your herd. The considerations listed above are general guidelines. Every operation has different challenges and opportunities. Consult with your county’s UF/IFAS Agriculture Agent for assistance implementing strategies that can help you get the most out of your cool-season forages, this year, and in the future.
Washington County bahiagrass hay. Despite the producer’s best efforts, it is unlikely that this hay will be able to meet the nutritional demands of a lactating brood cow. Some supplementation will be required to ensure that cattle performance is not suppressed. Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin
Two general statements to begin the discussion:
- Florida grass hay is generally not sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of a lactating brood cow.
- A fall/early winter calving season is a fairly standard practice in Northwest Florida.
These two statements imply that most lactating brood cows will be fed hay this winter that is incapable of meeting their nutritional demands. Granted, for experienced producers, this is not news. That said, each year cattlemen struggle with how to most efficiently supplement low quality hay to meet the nutritional demands of their cows.
Cool season, annual forages and good grazing management can go a long way to feed the cow herd during the cooler months, but for a variety of reasons, most herds in Northwest Florida utilize hay and some form of supplemental feed to meet their nutritional demands for at least a portion of the winter. The following are some general concepts that can help you put together an efficient supplementation plan.
To efficiently reach the main goal, cows in good condition without breaking the bank, you must understand where you are starting. You need to have a good idea of what your cows actually need in terms crude protein (CP) and energy (TDN). If you have a uniform herd of cows, some quick research or a brief consultation with your County Agent should provide you with good target numbers for CP and TDN. These are not the only two nutritional factors for cows, but addressing these two, and providing a balanced, free choice mineral, will suffice in most instances.
Collecting hay samples for laboratory analysis. The only way to know the quality of hay and put together an efficient supplementation plan is to work from a forage analysis. Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin
Understanding what the cows need is only half of the equation for determining the previously mentioned starting point. You also need to know the nutritional content of your hay. This can be determined through a laboratory analysis of your hay. Each lot of hay is different, and ideally should be sampled and analyzed separately. Having the nutritional information on each lot/cutting of hay allows you to feed and supplement the hay more strategically. Feed the better hay to the animals with the highest nutritional demands. Not all hay feeding situations require supplementation; forage analysis is the only way to know before you start feeding.
Once you know what the cows need, and what’s in your hay, you can begin to put together a supplementation plan. First, identify the nutritional gaps. Are you short on CP, TDN, both, or neither? This sounds very simple but year after year, I talk with cattlemen that are evaluating supplements based on CP when TDN is actually where their hay falls short.
When you know what nutrients you are looking for you can begin comparing available supplements. Supplements come in all shapes and sizes; commodity/by-product feeds, bagged/pelleted feeds, liquid feeds, pressed products (tubs), etc. The list of practical supplement options varies considerably by operation based on location, ability to store/handle bulk products, equipment and labor available for feeding, and other factors. Once you have a list of options, evaluate supplements in terms of price per unit of nutrient (CP and/or TDN), on a dry matter basis, not price per unit of product.
Example: Calculating Price per Unit of Nutrient
Product A – $150/ton @ 65% TDN; 2000lbs/ton x 65%TDN = 1,300lbs TDN/ton; $150/ton / 1,300lbs TDN/ton = $0.115/lbs. TDN
Product B – $175/ton @ 85% TDN; 2000lbs/ton x 85%TDN = 1,700lbs TDN/ton; $175/ton / 1,700lbs TDN/ton = $0.103/lbs. TDN
In the example, Product B cost more per unit of product, but it is actually the cheaper alternative when viewed in terms of price per unit of nutrient. This kind of evaluation may not land you on the perfect supplement, but it will go a long way toward weeding out the options that are too expensive to look at further.
Consumption, or rate of intake is another huge consideration when comparing supplements. It doesn’t matter how “cheap” a product is, if the cows eat way more of it than they need, it likely will not be a good value. Conversely, if cattle can’t or won’t consume enough supplement to meet their needs, performance and the value of the supplement will be limited. Consumption is easily regulated when a product is fed to the herd daily, but then labor costs associated with feeding become a major concern. Products that are fed free choice reduce labor costs, but are much more prone to have issues relating to consumption rate. Consumption rate of free choice products should be evaluated over time. There will be an acclimation period for new products, so it will take time for consumption to normalize. Even after the acclimation period, consumption can still vary somewhat. These variations are based largely on weather and the quality and quantity of available forage.
Once you have a feel for how much product your cows are consuming, you can determine if their consumption rate needs to be altered. There are techniques that can be used to tweak the consumption rates of some free choice products. Consult with your County Agent for techniques relating to the specific product you are feeding. If you find consumption to be considerably and consistently different than desired you should re-evaluate the value of the product based on what the cattle are actually consuming. At that point it may be pertinent to consider alternative products. A product that is slightly more expensive in terms of price per unit of nutrient may be cheaper overall, if it is consumed at a lower rate.
Example: Calculating Target Consumption Rate
A moderate milking, 1,200lb cow, at peak lactation needs approximately 16.5lbs TDN/day.
She will eat about 2% of her body weight (24lbs DM) each day of 50%TDN hay.
24lbs x 50%TDN=12lbs TDN/day. 16.5lbs TDN/day – 12lbs TDN/day = 4.5lbs TDN/day
She needs an additional 4.5lbs TDN each day or 5.3lbs of Product B from the previous example.
5.3lbs/day would be the target consumption rate for Product B in this scenario.
Developing a supplementation plan is not a one time event. On the contrary, it is a continual process of evaluation and analysis. As tedious as it may seem, the process is necessary to maximize efficiency. Striving for efficiency is not easy, but in a time when cow-calf margins are tight and expected to get tighter, it is worth your time and effort to closely evaluate your current system and evaluate other options that may be more efficient.
For more information on supplementing poor quality hay or winter feeding in general, see Have a Plan for Efficient Winter Feeding, or give you County Agent a call.