Old-timers will tell you that if you take care of your grass, it’ll take care of you.

That’s easy advice to follow when it rains. But what do you do when it doesn’t?

Randy Blin says listening to the old-timers is even more critical when rainfall is scarce. “Weed control is more important in a drought than anything,” says Blin, co-owner of Star Lake Cattle Ranch, a registered Hereford outfit near Skiatook, in northeast Oklahoma. “Weeds grow best in a drought, more so than the grass. So it’s probably as important or more to have that knockdown.”

That’s what Blin and his management team learned as the deep red on the USDA Drought Monitor Map spread over the course of last spring and summer. The early knockdown they achieved last spring helped their old-world bluestem pastures and hay meadows survive what locals are calling the worst drought in 100 years.

Star Lake has implemented a rotational plan for pasture weed control. While conventional wisdom says there’s little return on that kind of management, it can pay in higher rainfall areas such as northeast Oklahoma.

Their weed warfare targets western ragweed, the predominant weed species plaguing their pastures and hay meadows. Working with a consultant familiar with the region, they took a critical look at what and how much weed control they could afford.

“We can’t afford to spray the whole ranch every year,” Blin says. “Number one, it’s not cost effective; number two, it’s not necessary.” But beyond that, Blin and his management team were at a loss as to where to start and how much to do. “There are a lot of things we do really well,” Blin says. “Agronomy is not one of them.”

So, working with Tad Bell with Helena Chemical, they developed a GPS map of the entire ranch. Not only did Bell bring the agronomic expertise they were looking for, but ranching experience as well. In the late ’80s, Bell managed the ranch across the road from Star Lake.

Using the GPS data, they segmented the ranch and looked at their pasture utilization. From that, they assigned a use-pressure number to each pasture ranging from one to 10. “When we get to the 8s, 9s and 10s, they get more weed control,” says Montie Soules, ranch manager. “The areas we graze heavy got good weed control. That made a huge difference for us because we had control where we needed it.”

Photo courtesy of Kanwaka Communications

The exercise had other benefits as well. “We’d never just sat down and graded every pasture,” Soules says. “When you discipline yourself with exercises like that, it makes you smarter about what you’re doing and where you’re doing it.”

This will be the fourth year of their planned rotational weed-control efforts. Short of a full-blown forage count, which they elected not to do, it’s hard to quantify exactly how much improvement has occurred over the past three years. But if the eye of the master can fatten a calf, it can evaluate pastures, too.

“There’s dramatically more grass available,” says Todd Herman, operations manager. “And it’s better quality.”

Positive Results

Take the hay meadows, for example. Their hay ground, just like their pastures, is old-world bluestem and isn’t irrigated.

In spring 2010, a year of ample rainfall, they fertilized a portion of their hay meadows with 50 lbs. of nitrogen (N) and sprayed for weeds. That year, they got 4.12 bales/acre of 1,500-lb. large square bales. They came back with a fall application of 9-23-30 fertilizer.

“In 2011, we had zero treatment on that piece of ground – no fertilizer, no herbicide,” Bell says. “And it gave us 2.18 bales/acre – in a drought year. On some country right beside it, we did an herbicide application alone and a fall application of 9-23-30 and we got 1.84 bales/acre.”

What’s more, the hay was better quality. “We got almost a ½-bale/acre increase in tonnage in a drought year,” Bell says, “and the protein was better. The protein in 2010 was 7%. On the country we treated with fertilizer plus the herbicide, we got 8.7% protein. So we increased our protein by 1½ points – in a drought year.”

But did adding those extra input costs pay? In 2010, it was about a wash, Bell says. “We got a marked increase in production, but the cost of that production increase was about equal to what you could buy hay for.”

He hasn’t run the numbers for 2011, but thinks the extra costs for fertilizer and herbicide paid off, given the drastic increase in hay prices. “We get one cutting,” Blin says, “and we can’t produce all we need. So the more we produce, the less we have to buy.” And the more he produces off his own hay meadows, where he knows the quality he’s getting, the better he feels.

“If you fertilize the hay pastures, it’s going to give you a higher-quality product,” Soules says. “With a higher-quality product, you don’t have to use as much, and that’s proven.”

Better pastures

Because it’s a seedstock operation, merely increasing grass tonnage in the pastures so they can increase stocking rates isn’t the goal. “It’s not about growing more grass so we can run more cows,” Herman says. “It’s more a case of raising the best we can – not quantity but quality. We’re here to raise the best-quality cattle we can off the grass that’s there and use that grass as efficiently as we can.” In Herman’s mind, it’s a simple equation – better-quality grass equals better-quality cattle.

However, on a neighboring commercial cow-calf ranch, Bell says the results of weed control were tangible. Last year, the ranch sprayed one division with a helicopter. Two other divisions were essentially untreated.

“On the division that we got the helicopter over in a timely fashion, the weaning weights were 75 lbs./head higher than the other two divisions,” Bell says. That ranch is now on a three-year rotation, spraying one division/year to control weeds.

Running the numbers based on last year’s conditions, Bell says with a $7/acre herbicide application, and a five-weight calf at $1.20/lb., all the ranch needed was 5 lbs. of added weaning weight to pay for the pasture management.

Star Lake likewise uses a helicopter to spray a portion of the ranch, because some pastures are too rough to treat with a ground rig. Application costs are the most expensive part of a weed and brush control program, Blin says, and helicopters don’t rent for cheap. “We operate on a budget just like everybody else,” Blin says. So the ranch bought its own ground-spray rig, an investment Blin thinks was well worth the money.

“We’re doing about 20% of the ranch with our own ground rig. We’re covering more ground because we’re working smarter,” he says. “By taking those savings on the 800 acres we’re not flying, it helps us stretch things.”

Based on their use-pressure analysis, Star Lake treats about a third of the ranch on a rotational basis. Those pastures receiving the heaviest use, such as the bull-development pastures and areas near the headquarters, are treated annually.

Typically, in northeast Oklahoma, Bell advises weed treatment begin somewhere around May 20. This year, he’ll stress early and timely application even more.

“It was really evident last year, getting herbicide down early. Keeping those weeds out of competition with the water and nutrients, we produced more grass before the drought really set in,” Bell says.

Ask Blin if he’s happy following the old-timer’s advice about taking care of your grass and he’ll flash a big smile. Ask him how to go about it and he’ll tell you to pick the right partner.

“You can’t do it all; you need somebody who’s got the expertise. And quite honestly, in our regard, it saves us money because of that. We’re covering more acres with the same dollars. To me, that’s saving money,” Blin says.