It’s often said that if you’re a cow-calf operator, your job is to run cows that produce healthy calves every year. And the most efficient path to that goal is to maintain pastures that yield nourishing forage and limits the need for supplemental feeding.

“Producers need a pasture with grass that is nutritious and plentiful. If it has excessive weeds, there will be a decrease in grass quantity and quality,” says Dr. Angela Clark, DVM, Hohenwald, Tenn.

At Hohenwald Animal Hospital, where Clark is an associate veterinarian, many of the large animal clients are cow-calf or stocker operators.  Most have experienced wet conditions that can sometimes reduce forage quality while promoting excessive weed growth. And they’ve also been hit with drought that forces ranches to stretch their resources to the max.

“We want a cow that produces a good calf every year,” Clark says. “So we must make sure she breeds back within 82-85 days after her calf hits the ground. That normally requires that producers take a proactive approach to pasture and animal health management in all kinds of conditions. That will help cows maintain a Body Condition Score of 5, which is ideal for breeding and producing a healthy calf.”

Weeds not only rob forage of water and other soil nutrients, they can also become toxic and cause health problems for cattle. “Both drought and excessive rainfall can promote the growth of toxic weeds that can harm cattle,” Clark says. “If producers have a plan to control those weeds through the timely use of herbicides, their pastures should provide more forage for good grazing.”

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Dr. Scott Flynn, field specialist for Dow AgroSciences in Lee’s Summit, Mo., says the proactive approach to weed control starts with developing a plan to manage the types of weeds known to populate your pasture. Ranchers must also prepare for other weeds that have been found in your area.

“The rule of thumb is for every pound of weeds you remove from a pasture, you gain a pound of forage,” Flynn says. “So weed management is critical. Producers need to work with their pasture management consultant or local Extension specialist to develop a herbicide prescription best for weed control in their area.”

Rotational grazing helps reduce supplemental feeding

Whether its fescue in the Midsouth, coastal Bermuda in central Texas or Buffalo grass farther west, the availability of sufficient grass and a little rainfall can enable ranchers to maintain rotational grazing.

“Producers should utilize rotational grazing when possible,” Clark says. “Depending on your location and rainfall, rotational grazing will enable you to obtain more efficient gains. If it’s possible, development a rotational program where you’re grazing all year long instead of depending on supplemental hay. That can help save a lot on input costs.”

Stocking rates should be based on regional forage recommendations. They should be altered if pastures have been stressed due to drought or other situations. Restocking too early after drought, or even a range fire, can prevent grass from regaining a good root system.

Of course, there are many benefits of good forage management. And you’ll see them in your cows and their calves. “Our goal is to see every cow with a BCS 5,” Clark says. “At that condition, they are more likely to produce a good calf that should have a high weaning weight.

“A good forage program will help cows maintain that condition. Their BCS should be monitored every time they enter the chute. With a BCS 5, cows have a 90% or better conception rate.

“Proactive management will help get them back to BCS 5 more efficiently, through a good nutrition program, along with a good vaccination protocol and proper animal health plan. It’s important to remember it takes roughly 75-100 pounds of weight to increase a BCS by one score. The availability of good forage from the pasture will promote that and enable the producer to depend less on supplemental feeding.”

Along with helping cows maintain a good BCS, good pasture forage enables their calves or stocker placements to see higher average daily gains. “We know there is a correlation between a cow’s nutritional status and the calf’s health and weaning weights.”

Clark says. “Weaning weight will be higher, which helps calves approach puberty sooner.

“Cows that calve later in the calving season have to work harder to wean a calf at the same weight as those calves that are calved earlier in the calving season.”

She encourages producers to preg check their heifers and cows through conventional or newer blood testing methods. “However, these tests only tell you whether she’s open,” Clark says, “not necessarily if she has conceived in the 85-day period.”

Soil, forage samples

Knowing the nutritional value of your grass and soil helps determine their value in a grazing program. Samples can also help determine what type weeds may be ready to emerge. And sampling can help gauge when forage growth may approach a situation that can stunt animal health.

Information obtained from testing gives producers further data to help reduce supplemental feeding. It can improve input management. “If we have sufficient grazing there is probably no need to feed a supplement to a cow that already has a BCS 5,” Clark says. “We’re spending more on than is needed. She doesn’t require the supplement.

 “Grass is a resource that every cattleman has, the grass those cattle are standing on. It’s important to utilize that grass as efficiently as possible.”

She reminds producers that every part of the country has a specific forage situation. Some can promote toxic material. “For example, in the Midsouth, fescue is a huge forage resource,” Clark says. “Managed properly, it can be a great forage for cattle. It has good nutritional value.

“But when the seed heads are present, we can have some toxic effects on conception and weight gain. It’s important that we rotate cattle off these pastures if there is a threat to their health.”