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Weeds can be quality, cheap feed

Brenda Griffith Cooke in aster pasture
In 2017 the aster was thick and we grazed it with high stock densities. The steers loved left behind them only bald aster stems with about 60% trampling of the forage onto the ground.
The right grazing management can make weeds your allies instead of your enemies.

This past year we've had some outstanding grazing from a plant most folks would call a weed.

My weed identification skills are somewhat lacking, but it is clearly an aster. One of my weed books lists two members as asters that are in the sunflower family. One, Slender aster, is an annual. The other, White heath aster, is a perennial. Both are capable of growing to a height of five feet with thick branching, and they flower in the summer with huge numbers of small leaves, mini-sunflower blooms and very small seeds.

Cattle grazed in high densities likely take out and/or severely thin the asters when they are grazed in the seedling stages in the late spring or early summer. The aster jungle growth shows up in August and September on completely recovered pastures when environmental conditions dictate.

Our history with aster is interesting in that about five or six years ago we had a growth of the forbs that covered lots of acres on a farm that we had not grazed for the vast majority of the growing season. As best I can remember I was amazed in September and early October as I watched the cattle browse the plants aggressively at chest to chin height for 30 to 60 minutes before reaching down to pick a mouthful of pretty green grass and clover. Immediately they would go back to browsing the miniature sunflower-like blooms and small limbs covered with slender leaves. The weight gains were really good. This went on for several weeks as we were giving them a new cut of aster daily.

In mid-October we received our normal three nights of back to back killing frosts and the cattle stopped most of the browsing. I planned to move the herd to the same location several weeks earlier the following year but there were near zero asters. The same thing happened for the next four to six years.

In 2017 the aster was back big time and we got on it on September 14 with 140,000 pounds per acre cattle densities. The steers loved it and we had seas of the big thick forbs in front of them. It looked like a snow storm had dumped the white blooms from chin height to your knees. Behind the cattle there were bald aster stems with 60% trampling of the forage.

In 2017 we had our first frost event as a 25-degree freeze in early November but the steers kept browsing. Their grass consumption increased but the manure just got better. Supplement intake went down and the steers were full most days when we arrived to give them a new cut of fresh forage. In mid-November they were still hitting the aster, though with less of the gusto than in September and October. Animal performance was as good as we experienced in mid-June and July when we normally see peak gains.

Many of ya’ll and most of my neighbors would have mechanically removed the aster several weeks in front of the steers. Lots of “experts” would have certainly urged us to make such a giant mistake. Walt Davis recently said most ranchers still believe that weeds are enemy No. 1. Truth is that in this case at least they are incorrect. Aster was not our enemy but rather our ally in the fall of 2017.

Figure it for yourself. We achieved almost 140 cow days (a cow day = 1,000 pounds of body weight for one day) per acre for more than two months on the stuff. By the time frost came the cattle were browsing less of the aster and we still had 80% of the fall grass and legume growth that mechanical clipping might have provided. This was extremely low-cost, low-input grazing and production.

But the big plus was the weight gains provided by plant maturity with immature seeds and the dry matter produced by a high complete biomass of forage. Complex plant communities are stable even though they often operate in chaos. They will not be the same every year but they will provide reliable quality feed. This is important, very important.

Forbs also can be very important for animal health improvements, at least partially because they gather so many minerals and medicinal compounds lacking in grasses.

This is just one example why it behooves us to manage for what we want, and yet learn to utilize and prosper from what we get. Diversity yields stability and we need all the stability we can come up with in this business.

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