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Replanting a pasture: Economically feasible or just risky?

Megan K. Clayton for Progressive Forage Published on 01 February 2018

Landowners may choose to replant a pasture for many reasons, including invasive plants, drought impacts, wildlife concerns or changes in the ranch operation. What to plant should always be based on established goals for the property. Do you want to solely manage for livestock forage or does wildlife hunting or viewing add to the value or recreational opportunities on your land?

Introduced grasses often establish more quickly, may be less expensive to plant and can typically produce more forage per acre for livestock than a native plant mix. However, introduced grasses often require fertilizer, weed control and, in some years, insect control in order for them to reach their maximum potential.

Alternatively, native plant mixes may take a year or two for establishment, seeds are typically more expensive than introduced varieties, and they may yield lower amounts of forage per acre for livestock. A native plant mix is realistically the only way to go if your goals involve maintaining valuable wildlife habitat. Another bonus to having native pastures is the low input costs. Native pastures are not fertilized because the cost will not justify the amount of growth return, plus you might favor some species in the diverse plant mix over others, inadvertently reducing your plant diversity for wildlife or creating a monoculture of one plant.

Have you ever wondered if you will make your money back on a planting investment? A new Texas A&M AgriLife Extension project recently looked at the economics behind replanting a pasture on a hypothetical ranch in Live Oak County, Texas. We assumed custom rates and average scenarios for southern Texas and ran the numbers using the Farm Assistance Risk Management Model, built for producers to examine financial information related to different potential scenarios for their operations. This general concept should hold true in most other regions, except costs may shift a bit, and the specific grass species considered will certainly change.

We looked at three different enterprises: owner grazing the land with their cattle, leasing the grazing rights to another producer or haying the field. We considered three different plant covers: a mix of native grasses and forbs, buffelgrass (a fairly low-input introduced grass), or Tifton 85 bermudagrass (a more intensively managed grass).

Although field preparation for all scenarios was assumed to be the same ($63.40 per acre), establishment costs for Tifton 85 bermudagrass was highest ($151 per acre) due to the need to sprig this grass instead of planting seeds and following up with a 30-day post-planting weed spray as recommended to give the sprigs a head start (Table 1). The lowest establishment cost was for buffelgrass because the seeds are readily available (so therefore cheaper), and seed is broadcast and packed. A native seed mix in southern Texas costs about $18 per acre more than buffelgrass, accounting for the difference in establishment costs between the two.

Table 1

Although you can expect an introduced grass field to support more cattle, maintenance costs of the different plant covers were extraordinarily different: Native plant fields were only $34 per acre over a 10-year period, and Tifton 85 was a shocking 15 to 28 times the cost of natives ($516 per acre for grazing and $978 per acre for haying for a 10-year period) due to fertilization, weed control and occasional insect control costs in order to maintain high production. Buffelgrass maintenance was only three times the cost of natives ($98 per acre) for the 10-year period because weeds are typically only sprayed every few years instead of annually, and simple brush management would typically help maintain grass fields.

Cattle stocking rates were very different for the three cover types. Native plant communities in southern Texas are subject to periodic droughts. Landowners wanting to maintain a diverse plant mix often run conservative stocking rates that remove only 25 percent of the forage available and stock at 75 percent of the potential. Land is rested for the first two years after a planting, although with exceptional rains, it is possible to restock after only one growing season. On our example 250-acre pasture, we stocked eight cows during the third and fourth year and maxed out the land at 12 cows for years five through 10.

Introduced forages can be utilized much more extensively. We estimated a 50 percent use of buffelgrass (of 4,500 pounds per acre) and a 65 percent use of Tifton 85 bermudagrass (of 5,000 pounds per acre). After only resting the introduced grass fields for one year, we stocked 50 animals on the buffelgrass and 72 on the Tifton 85.

We assumed 9,000 pounds per acre yield of hay for the Tifton 85 bermudagrass fields, which would be a reasonable amount given fertilizer, weed control and averaging two cuttings per year.

In the end, we found no scenario to pay for the planting and maintenance cost after 10 years except for haying Tifton 85 bermudagrass (Figure 1). Unfortunately, when you have hay, likely everybody else does as well, and the practice may be more risky than our model shows. We are unable to estimate how many years over 10 it will take to pay off each establishment scenario. However, the exact numbers should not be the focus; we estimated and assumed a lot of variables. This study has shown that, no matter which option you choose, complete pasture plantings to improve cattle forage are not typically a profitable investment.

Figure 1

So are we suggesting that you never improve a pasture by planting? Absolutely not. However, careful evaluation of your goals and the motives behind replanting will help you decide which practice is best. Is there a way to improve your existing forage base rather than starting from scratch? Deferred grazing, chemical, mechanical or prescribed fire techniques may help to improve the productivity of a pasture without the cost and risk of replanting. Additionally, if planting will improve soil health and provide continued enjoyment of the land long term, it could be thought of as an investment in the property instead of in the cattle operation.  end mark

Megan K. Clayton
  • Megan K. Clayton

  • Associate Professor and Extension Range Specialist
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
  • Email Megan K. Clayton

PHOTO: Cattle graze buffelgrass pastures in Texas. Photo provided by Megan Clayton.

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