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What kinds of forages do you really need?

Almost every year, a new “wonder grass” is vigorously marketed to beef cattle producers. Most often, these highly touted forages will do what they are advertised to do, but do you really need them?

To help answer this question, the first piece of information you need is what precipitation zone you are in. It is highly unlikely you need to do a lot of research into how much the latest hybrid bermudagrass will make for you if you are a dry-land producer in southeast New Mexico.

Contact someone in your area, such as the county Extension agent or NRCS range conservationist, to advise you on what forages are adapted to your precipitation zone. They also will narrow down whether you should consider both cool-season and warm-season forages. If your warm season is too short, you might be limited to cool-season forages for best results.

Another factor that might help you decide if the wonder grass is worth trying is the type of cattle enterprise you are managing. If you are in the southern Great Plains, manage a cow-calf program and market your calves at weaning in the fall, you might want to reconsider costly cool-season annuals. While these forages can make great production, they also cost more to establish.

If you are just wintering dry cows, you can probably do it cheaper on dormant warm-season grasses. However, if you are going to background your calves as stockers on grass, then the cost of establishing these forages often can be offset by the value in gain or positioning yourself at a better marketing time.

Another consideration is whether you are committed to managing the grass at the level required to achieve the higher yield or better average daily gain. I have seen several instances where a producer planted a wonder grass and was very happy with the stand it made. However, when he looked back at the production he made that year, whether it was tons of hay or number of cattle he was able to carry, he was disappointed with the results.

The reason was, he did not commit to fertilizing at more than the marginal level, or he did not harvest the hay at the right physiological stage, or he didn’t rotate cattle adequately to maintain the forage in a vegetative stage that would provide the reported average daily gains.

Remember, even though they are wonder grasses, they need a little help to make them perform. Look into the management applied to achieve the reported results, and then ascertain whether you are willing to follow the protocol or not. If you are not, then there are “less-than-wonder grasses” and are capable of producing less-than-astounding yields under marginal management.

Another question to ask is: Are you interested in improving wildlife habitat while producing beef cattle? If your answer is yes, you might want to reconsider planting bermudagrass, bahiagrass and dallisgrass. Or, at least determine where these forages might fit in your program while sacrificing some opportunity for habitat improvement.

Matt Mattox is a forage specialist at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla. For more information, go to or call (580) 224-6500.

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