One of the most common challenges that Texas Longhorn ranch owners face is controlling weeds in the cattle fields. Here at Star Creek Ranch, we work hard to keep our pastures weed free. Weed infestation is not only a nuisance for both the cattle and the rancher, but it can also cause significant problems come springtime. First and foremost, weeds compete with the grasses that the cattle rely on for food, which can reduce the overall yield of the pasture and make it harder to maintain healthy cattle. Additionally, some weeds are toxic to cattle and can cause health problems if ingested. Weeds can also make it harder to manage the fields and can create hiding places for pests and predators.
Weed species compete with more desirable forage species for sunlight, moisture, and soil nutrients. Healthy forage stands usually can out-compete weed species, but under low fertility conditions, weeds generally have a competitive advantage.
What Causes Weed Infestations?
Weed infestations most often occur due to overgrazing and poor pasture management. Continuous and heavy grazing of desirable forages without adequate time for recovery leads to a reduction in abundance and/or frequency. This creates an opportunity for weed infestation to occur. Since most weed species are generally not as palatable to Texas Longhorns, these species are generally ignored while more pressure is placed on the more desirable species. If this practice continues, a change in plant species composition from desirable to less desirable species occurs. This is referred to as overgrazing.
Inadequate pasture management is often responsible for weed problems. Some ranchers try to address these issues by applying herbicides or mowing, but keep in mind, these methods only treat the symptoms rather than the root cause. Moreover, if no desirable species remain after weed infestation, the application of herbicides may lead to bare soil. Despite their reputation as pests, weeds can play a positive role in reducing soil and water runoff in certain situations. Therefore, it may be necessary to renovate the pasture completely to address the problem effectively.
Why Control Weeds?
I’m sure we can agree that nothing looks worse than a weedy pasture! Most ranchers take great pride in their Texas Longhorns and want their land to reflect their pride of ownership. In addition to aesthetics, weed control in pastures is important because many common weeds such as bitter sneezeweed, Carolina horsenettle, and silverleaf nightshade are considered toxic to livestock. While most are not palatable and not readily grazed, if the weeds are harvested in hay, they can still retain some of their toxic properties and be harmful if they comprise a large portion of the forage. Adverse weather conditions such as drought, penned cattle, and rotational stocking may cause livestock to graze toxic plants. Some weeds, such as the buttercup, are only considered slightly toxic and may cause chronic problems such as reduced milk production, decreased weight gains, and lack of breeding efficiency.
Weed Control Solutions
Weed management is one of the keys to raising efficient Texas Longhorn cows, bulls, and steers. Good weed control takes dedication and may require several methods, especially with certain weeds. The most effective options include grazing management, mechanical control, and chemical control.
Controlled grazing allows beneficial plants to become strong, productive plants and out-compete the weeds. By rotating cattle between different pastures, you can give the grasses time to recover and prevent the weeds from taking over. Texas Longhorns do a good job of grazing evenly–nevertheless, your pasture will last much longer if you can divide it up and use a rotational grazing system that fits your needs and land.
For example, dividing your pasture up into four parts and cycling through every 3 weeks is a great system, but you may need to alter that based on your given situation. Allowing the grass and land to rest, even for just 10 days, will increase the productivity of your pasture and allow your Texas Longhorns to get more food on the same amount of land. Just be sure not to overgraze.
There are several mechanical options for weed control, and they are a good option in situations where equipment can be utilized or fairly small infestations of weeds are present. This method typically takes time and dedication but has been successfully used in overtaking extensive weed control problems. Mechanical options include repeated mowing/clippings and hand weeding.
One of the simplest ways to control weeds is to mow the pasture regularly. This can help keep weeds from getting out of control and can encourage the growth of healthy grasses. Timing of the mowing is critical because you must eliminate the seed production, which will prevent future re-infestations. This is true of all weed control options. When the weeds are in the early bud to early bloom stage, mow as close to the ground as possible, about 3 to 4 inches above the ground. This weakens the weed by depleting the root reserves and prevents the further spread of seed.
Mowing may not completely eliminate weed seed production. Hard-to-control weeds, like thistle, can produce a second seed head during the same growing season and thus require a follow-up clipping. In addition to re-growing, they commonly produce the second seed head close to the ground, making clipping difficult. Additionally, you must be cautious when mowing woody plants because some plant material, such as cherry tree leaves, can become toxic to livestock after they have been artificially desiccated.
Tillage and reseeding can be used to suppress weeds as part of a pasture renovation but this method is not the most effective way to manage weeds in an existing pasture because it can be costly and time-consuming. If you have a small infestation of weeds, you may be able to hand-pull them. This can be a labor-intensive process, but it’s a good option if you don’t want to use chemicals.
Another control method includes various herbicides. Weed identification is the essential first step to good chemical weed control. When selecting a product, try to choose one that will control as many weeds as possible. When applying multiple products, choose ones that can be mixed in the same tank and applied in one pass. Two popular types of weed control products are pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides. Pre-emergent herbicide must be applied before the weed seeds germinate. Post-emerge products kill weeds after they have germinated and must be used when the plant is actively growing.
When using any herbicide, you must pay careful attention to the surrounding crops. Many herbicides are lethal to other crops like vegetables, shrubs, and flowers. “Drift” is when pesticide dust or droplets move through the air at the time of application, or soon after, to any site other than the area intended. Drift will vary with boom height, nozzle type, pressure, and wind, so you should choose a product that will not harm surrounding crops if drift occurs.
Most herbicides have restrictions on the label, such as how long before animals can go back and graze, harvest restrictions, animal withdrawal times before slaughter, and the time of year products should be applied for effective control. Different products vary in their restriction guidelines, so you must review and adhere to the grazing or haying restrictions for your selected herbicide. These restrictions can be anywhere from no grazing restrictions to one year.
Chemical control of weeds is often looked at as the first option of control, but consideration should go into developing a plan. Herbicides can be a useful weed management tool in pastures and hayfields, but a program that integrates several different weed control strategies is generally more successful than relying on only one method. Weeds present at the time of herbicide application may be controlled, but the weed seeds existing in the soil still have an opportunity to germinate and grow in the bare areas that remain. In this situation, you should consider seeding the bare area following chemical application so the desired species has a chance to grow.
Final Thoughts on Weed Control
Weed control is an important aspect of Texas Longhorn cattle ranching, and it’s something that should be addressed early in the springtime. Using some of the methods outlined above, you can keep your pastures healthy and productive for your cattle. Just remember to always be mindful of the impact that any herbicides or other treatments might have on the environment, and choose solutions that are safe for both your cattle and the land they graze on.
To learn more, contact me, Darlene, at Star Creek Ranch today. I love to “Talk Texas Longhorns” and will gladly help in any way I can.