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Animal Health Notebook
Eastern gamagrass in a meadow Alan Newport
Author finds Eastern gamagrass, so-called queen of the native grasses, isn't an ice cream plant for all cattle in all situations.

Monocultures are the ultimate loss of plant diversity

What happens if you take one of the best grazing plants on the planet and offer that alone to cattle?

I’ve heard it said many times that variety is the spice of life, and here's an example why it's true.

My flip phone rang this spring while I was pulling string and moving cattle. I called back in a few minutes and had an interesting visit. My client on the other end had taken in several hundred yearling heifers on a gain basis. They were averaging 540 pounds after a 2% shrink. They were delivered in April after being hard wintered following an August purchase.

The first five weeks weight gain of a test group indicated better than 2 pounds per head per day. We’re shooting for 1.7 pounds per day average as of load out in July and August.

Eastern gamagrass instigated the call. Up here on the Cumberland Highland Rim of Tennessee it does not grow, but down 30 miles west in the limestone Nashville basin it is common on the roadsides. My client has 40 acres that is knockdown gorgeous. It is thick and pure. On May 10th it was knee high and hard to walk through.

The trouble was that 50% of the heifers were not interested in this ice cream plant. They were walking around following my client. In a couple of minutes they went to the edge and started grazing anything and everything except gamagrass. What’s going on? The same thing happened last year in early June. We need gains. We’ve got a huge amount of biomass. And the cattle are going to melt. Our job is to keep them full and push gains. It ain’t happening. Remember that the key to prognosis and successful treatment is diagnosis.

Diagnosis needs to be accurate and in this case needs to be rapid. The cattle are hard and healthy so that should not be a major factor. Their grazing attitude flip flopped when they hit the gamagrass.

We started putting together a history and facts:

  • Cattle were coming off rye grass and clover.
  • Cattle are going on a monoculture of  eastern gamagrass.
  • Almost 50% of the cattle have no grazing interest. The others are taking only the top third or less of the 30-inch-tall grass.
  • Water and supplement and ambient temperatures are better than adequate.
  • The gamagrass is not palatable to these cattle.

Remember that I lack experience with gamagrass. My first thought I made was to think about systems. Then I made calls to producers with more gamagrass experience. I learned more of what I already knew. High-energy plants that are high in the order of succession and biomass have crowns several inches above the ground that support the plants’ life and longevity. Remember that plants work to live and reproduce and process protective mechanisms. The gamma grass in question is no longer soft. It is starting to get high in lignin and probably adding more tannins. It is a high-energy plant but not a simple-sugar plant. Warm season (C4) plants are very health and production capable but they are not sweet as to simple sugar content. Much of their energy is stored as starches. These heifers had no experience with the plant.

We need to not forget that grazing high-tonnage plants and crown removal or severe damage results in thinning of the stand. This happens when the plant is very immature and highly palatable and very vulnerable. This might be acceptable every few years but not on a regular basis.

Severely grazing of plants that are not palatable is promised to lower cattle gains. Do not forget that good gains are necessary in a stocker operation to consistently yield black ink.

Let’s cut to the chase and do some things:

  1. Spray the grass with a little salt water -- 10 to 15 pounds per acres in 20 gallons of water -- and increase the palatability.
  2. The first move of the cattle needs to follow three four hours of sunshine and do so in ultra-high densities of 300,000 pounds or more for very short periods.
  3. Repeat cattle moves after a short period and work toward 125,000 pounds per acre densities.
  4. Take the top third of the plant as a goal with multiple daily moves.
  5. Don’t rapidly institute a back-wire. Back-grazing might be a good deal as the plants put on new growth.
  6. Increase the energy and protein supplement a little.
  7. Monitor the forage and the cattle fill with every move every day. Respond to what we see. We need the cattle to be full within 90 minutes after our first or second move. The cattle never need to look gutted at daylight.

Cattle health and herd health requires us to be close to the top of our game most days. This fact might be a little stressful but should not be deadly. Monocultures will cause stress but they should lead us to understanding the natural model principle of plant diversity yielding stability.

I did not invent the model but I promise that bare ground is enemy No. 1 and monocultures may likely be enemy No. 2. The natural model demands that we observe the principles in order to remain healthy and profitable.

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