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Marshall ryegrass exceeds expectations in tough Texas drought

published: September 7th 2001
by: Dr. David Bransby

On a trip to Texas at the end of April, testimony from commercial cattlemen made it clear that Marshall ryegrass has exceeded their expectations, especially in the severe droughts experienced in recent years. I have conducted research with stocker cattle on Marshall ryegrass for 13 years in Alabama. Results have been remarkable: average daily gains are frequently over 3 lb./head for 100 to 140-day grazing periods; we commonly use stocking rates of 2-3 steers per acre (starting weight, 450 lb): and weight gain per acre is often in the 700 - 800 lb range. This consistently results in returns over pasture costs that exceed $100/acre, and a cost per pound of weight gain of less than 20 cents.

Relative to these figures, many questions come to mind. How many row crops can consistently provide similar returns? Would crop farmers be planting crops at all if they knew that the government would not come to their aid in the event of drought, or low commodity prices? Why are more cattlemen not doing what this stocker research has demonstrated? Why do so many cattlemen still use small grains (such as rye) and Gulf ryegrass, when Marshall ryegrass is so much better? Can commercial cattlemen achieve similar levels of production and projected profit to that achieved on research stations? Can Marshall ryegrass play a role in cow-calf production, is it good only for stockers? How good is it for hay?

The list of questions seems endless, but I will try to address some of the most important issues in the rest of this article. Here I must emphasize that forage systems for beef cattle production are extremely diverse, and the number of possibilities is almost infinite. Therefore, it is simply impossible for researchers to evaluate this enormous range of options on re-search stations. However, there is a very large number of innovative ideas and systems currently in use among commercial cattlemen, and these people constitute a wealth of knowledge, and a critical source of information which cannot be provided by research stations.

What I am saying is that commercial cattlemen conduct a large amount of applied, observational research. It is with this in mind that I visit with commercial producers as often as I can, because I usually learn more from them than they learn from me. In addition, I am intensely interested in whether research results can be reproduced in a commercial setting, and in what modifications might need to be made. I am also continuously looking for questions that need to be addressed by means of additional research.

Oversowing Marshal

in East Texas

In Alabama, stocker research on Marshall ryegrass has been mainly on a prepared seedbed, because much of the winter pasture in this state is grown in rotation with summer row crops. However, with lower average rainfall and more frequent and severe droughts in Texas, oversowing winter annuals into warm season perennial sod is much more common than planting them on plowed fields.

I made two stops on my trip to Texas. The first was to visit with Dr. Zeke Grogan near Longview, in the eastern part of the state. Dr. Grogan is a practicing dentist three days a week. Otherwise, he is a commercial cattleman who usually runs about a thousand head of both stockers and cow-calf pairs, on several parcels of land. Within minutes of meeting Dr. Grogan, it was evident to me that he was very serious about his cattle business, and he was in it to make a profit. However, his forage system involves no plowing: it is essentially based on warm season perennial pasture (mainly bermudagrass, with some bahiagrass) oversown with Marshall ryegrass for winter.

In the recent drought Dr. Grogan was advised to destock, but ignoring this advice, he explained, “I could not be a grazier without it” (Marshall ryegrass) - I’m still surprised at what I can get Marshall to do for me under different management conditions. Since 1995 1 have used only Marshall ryegrass as my cool season grass. I have found I do better with my management program by not including rye. I do not include clovers in my cool season pasture program, because I cannot produce good clover consistently, year after year.”

The only way I could respond to these comments was that I agreed completely. I found Dr. Grogan’s assessment of rye and clover particularly gratifying, because it supported results of previous research I had conducted in Alabama. In 1991 and 1992, 1 had compared rye and Marshall ryegrass in a detailed, but short stocker grazing experiment between crops of peanuts. In both years, average daily gain and stocking rate were considerably higher for Marshall than for rye. The net result was almost 50 percent higher gain per acre from Marshall (513 lb vs. 344 lb for rye).

In another set of experiments in the early 1990’s, we found no benefit from including clovers with Marshall ryegrass. Again, Dr. Grogan’s experience confirmed these research results. While this may seem surprising, it really is not. We have frequently measured crude protein levels of over 20% in Marshall ryegrass, and sometimes it has been over 30%. Corresponding digestibility values were over 70%, and occasionally better than 80%. This exceptionally high nutritive value is simply hard to beat, even with clovers, but it does depend on proper fertilization.

Dr. Grogan keeps continuous detailed records on all his pastures and animals to monitor his cattle business. Based on these records, he indicated “Our oversown Marshall pastures cost about $90-per acre, and on one pasture we produced 4,250 pounds of beef at a total cost of $720, which amounts to 16.9 cents per pound, and we have even done this in drought years. It also makes excellent hay.” Again, this is reassuring, because it is very consistent with projections from research.

A Drier, Colder Location

From Longview I drove to Bowie, which is about 75 miles northwest of Dallas. Rainfall in this area is considerably lower than at Longview, and the winters are generally much colder. Cattle operations are based more on rangeland, because the climate and soils are marginal for many improved pasture species. At the time of my visit, the area was in the grip of a severe drought, having had only 7 to 8 inches of rain over the previous six months, from November through April.

I met with Mr. Rayford Pullen, the County Exten-sion Professional, and two local cattlemen, Mr. Ronnie Ogleby and Mr. “Rooter” Brite. I was told that Marshall was the preferred variety of ryegrass for the region because of its excellent cold tolerance. However, most people still mixed rye with it because they felt that rye was even more cold tolerant, and that rye could save them in the event of an extremely cold winter. I could not support this argument, because I have not heard of Marshall ryegrass being killed by cold in the Gulf states. In fact, in recent years Marshall has been seeded in fall by some cattlemen as far north as southern Kansas. I was also reminded of Dr. Grogan’s observation that he had recorded temperatures down to 12ºF, with no damage to Marshall, and he did not know how cold it needed to get before it was damaged.

Mr. Brite confirmed that he had also questioned the need for rye recently, and took us to to see a pure stand of Marshall ryegrass that he had tried as a test for the first time. There was no question in my mind that it looked better, and probably more attractive to livestock, than if rye had been mixed with it. My concern about mixing rye with Marshall is that rye is lower in both quality and productivity, and every rye plant will occupy space that could be occupied by a better ryegrass plant.

I was particularly impressed with the obvious productivity of the pure stand of Marshall under the prevailing drought conditions, and also with the innovative way that Mr. Brite was using ft. The field was located adjacent to an area of rangeland where a herd of cow-calf pairs were located. However, there was a creep gate installed in the fence which divided these two pastures, and this allowed the calves to creep into the ryegrass, but not the cows. Obviously, creep grazing is a very effective way of meeting the high nutritional needs of the calves, without allowing the cows access to the ryegrass under the limitations imposed by the drought.

Use of creep grazing is in line with research conducted several years ago at the Prairie Research Unit in Mississippi. In that 3-year study, cow-calf pairs were kept on toxic fescue pastures, but calves were allowed to creep into an adjacent Marshall ryegrass pasture. This resulted in a 10% increase in calf weight gain, compared to calves that were not offered creep grazing.

Volunteer Reseeding

During my visits in both Longview and Bowie, the subject of volunteer reseeding was discussed. There is no doubt that Marshall ryegrass is an excellent reseeder. However, I feel this should be viewed as a good insurance policy, rather than a way around properly seeding the pasture each year with good quality seed. While I recognize that each cattleman has a unique set of conditions to deal with, I feel it is important to give this matter very serious attention.

In order to allow adequate reseeding for only a possibility of a successful stand of Marshall ryegrass in the following year, it will be necessary to remove cattle about 30 days earlier than if reseeding was not planned. Assuming a stocking rate of 1.5 stockers per acre, and an average daily gain of 2.0 lb/day, this amounts to 90 lb per acre of weight gain that was not realized from the pasture due to the need to remove cattle early to allow reseeding.

If this gain is valued at 50 cents per pound, lost revenue due to reseeding would be $0.50 x 90 lb = $45.00. At a seed cost of 50 cents per pound, and a seeding rate of 25 lb per acre, seed cost per acre is only $12.50. Assuming it costs $8.00 per acre to plant the seed, total cost for a properly oversown pasture is only $20.50 per acre, which means that $24.50 per acre was lost by allowing volunteer reseeding, instead of purchasing and planting seed.

On initial assessment this may seem to be the only sacrifice, but total economic loss will be much greater. Pastures that result from volunteer reseeding will likely not produce more than 80% of the production expected from pastures that are properly overseeded with good quality seed. Therefore, if the properly seeded pastures produce 500 lb of weight gain per acre, then the reseeded pasture will produce only 400 lb. Furthermore, if this difference in weight gain of 100 lb per acre is valued at 50 cents per pound, then the loss form volunteer reseeding will be 100 lb x $0.50 = $50.00 per acre, for a total loss of $74.50 per acre as a result of depending on volunteer reseeding.

Since some of the projections I have used in this example are probably conservative, losses from volunteer reseeding could be substantially greater. If one adds to this the fact that reliability of volunteer reseeding is questionable at best, it becomes impossible to recommend it over purchasing and properly seeding good quality seed.

In summary, my trip to Texas was most informative. I definitely came away with some good new research ideas. The trip also confirmed that commercial cattlemen are able to achieve similar production and profits from Marshall ryegrass when compared to that reported from research, and Marshall has exceeded expectations in drought conditions. Mixing rye or clover with Marshall probably will provide no benefit. Besides being used to graze stockers, it is also used widely for cowcalf and hay production, but dependence on volunteer reseeding is not recommended. In short, if we are looking for a one-size-fits-all winter forage, Marshall ryegrass is hard to beat.


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