Former CRP landowners face tough decisions
Many Conservation Reserve Program participants find themselves facing some tough decisions after being notified their contracts will not be renewed, said a Texas AgriLife Extension Service specialist.
"I think we need to keep most of this land in rangeland," said Dr. Ted McCollum, AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist.
The land put into the federal program commonly called CRP in the mid 1980s was planted primarily in the High Plains to native grasses, Old World bluestems or weeping love grass, McCollum said. There are about 4 million acres of CRP in Texas, much of it in the High Plains.
"About 10 years ago when we first started seeing people come out of the program, we realized we would not be making the same amount as with government payments," McCollum said. "But we know properly managed Old World bluestem and weeping love grass can produce more beef per acre than native rangelands in the region."
The first step is to renovate the pastures, McCollum said. Renovation includes fencing, water development and rejuvenation of the forage stand. The exact needs will depend on if the land has been utilized under the managed haying and grazing allowance, emergency drought provisions or has been lying idle the entire contract period.
Livestock water is a major consideration, McCollum said. Planning must be based on how much water will be required daily and where the watering site will be located. These decisions must also take into account fencing layouts and grazing management plans, so a producer should formulate some ideas on the overall operation and use of the land before developing livestock water.
Consider the pumping or refill rate, the type and size of tanks/drinkers and storage needed to keep pace with daily consumption, McCollum said. Cattle requirements for water are generally one gallon per 100 pounds of body weight in cold weather and two gallons per 100 pounds of body weight in hot weather.
"Remember cattle consume water in one or two drinking bouts per day, which means they take in a lot of water at once," McCollum said. "Watering tends to be a herd activity on large acreage, but an individual activity on small acreage, so that affects the storage and refill rate required."
Fencing decisions have to be made simultaneously with the watering decisions, McCollum said, because one governs the other. When designing a fence layout, keep in mind grazing management, cattle handling and movement, machinery access for fertilization, well maintenance and integration with other grazing areas.
McCollum said there's more than just the permanent fence on the exterior to consider. Cross-fencing increases management flexibility and ability to manage forage.
All landowners need to also think of how they want to renovate the forage stand to enhance the vigor, stimulate tiller production and recruit new plants, he said.
"The first step is to remove the standing, decadent plant material and some of the thatch that can stifle developing tillers and seedlings," McCollum said. "Prescribed burning in the late winter or early spring is going to be the easiest way."
The material also can be cut and baled, McCollum said. If thatch buildup is a problem, though, don't mow the area and leave the mowed forage on the ground. Other means are shredding, disking or mob grazing during the forages' dormant season. Animal performance may be sacrificed with mob grazing, but this may be a more acceptable approach for some.
Stands seeded to weeping love grass and Old World bluestem can't be managed the same as stands seeded to native grasses or existing rangeland, McCollum said.
For stands seeded to native grasses, he said apply the same management practices recommended to maintain the productivity and health of rangelands in the region. These include attention to forage utilization, maintaining adequate groundcover and residue, and seasonal deferment of grazing. Carrying capacity or stocking rate will possibly be somewhat higher than on rangeland.
"Consider whether you need seasonal or year-round grazing. Make sure you can accommodate a rest period before dormancy on the grass," McCollum said. "Your nutritional management of the cattle will be similar as that on rangeland."
Fertilization is generally not recommended on native grasses but it may be beneficial during renovation, he said. Brush encroachment also needs to be managed.
Both Old World bluestems and weeping love grass can be productive forages that can provide exceptional grazing value if managed appropriately, McCollum said.
Weeping love grass initiates growth in late March to early April. Because of its rapid growth and decline in nutritional value, management can be a challenge and spot grazing can be a problem, he said.
In addition, love grass must be deferred from September until after frost. The best management practice is to use rotational grazing for a limited time during the growing season followed by removal of the excess residue during the dormant season.
Weeping love grass has its best nutritional value for 60 to 80 days beginning in late April, McCollum said. Hence, grazing during the growing season should be focused from May through July. In the winter, the love grass residue is acceptable as forage for cows and stockers if it is supplemented with protein.
He outlined eight keys to weeping love grass management which were to remove old growth prior to spring green-up by grazing, burning or mowing, fertilize nitrogen in 30-pound increments beginning in April, accumulate 6 inches of new spring growth before turnout, rotationally graze using 21-40 day intervals; grazing only three to seven days on a paddock and then deferring, cut or graze to a 4-inch stubble during each rotation cycle with grazing or hay harvest, control spot grazing, rest during September, October and November and then graze aftermath in the winter, and use as a part of a forage system in combination with other range and pasture resources.
Old World bluestem initiates growth in mid to late May, McCollum said. It can be managed under year-round continuous grazing but works best under rotational and limited grazing. Nutritional value and weight gains are good for 60-80 days beginning in June. During the winter, dormant Old World bluestem can be grazed by cows or stockers with a protein supplement.
The keys for Old World bluestem use are similar to the weeping love grass, but with the fertilization as a single application of 30-50 pounds of nitrogen in May. Rotational grazing should be based on 30-45 day cycles with four to seven days grazing on each paddock.