Each day just before the sun sets, I look out on our pastures to the same, beautiful sight. The sun’s rays stretch out across the acres and each deep green blade of grass is highlighted by a golden yellow. It’s a particularly beautiful sight by the Withlacoochee River as the colors of the pasture and sky are reflected in the water. This time of day reminds me of how lucky we are to be stewards of this land.
Being stewards means paying attention to one critical element: the grass! One of the first things I learned from cattlemen when I began raising beef is that if I wanted to be a good rancher, I’d have to be a good grass farmer. And how right they were. Grass is the lifeblood of maintaining a healthy brood cow. The diet of the typical brood cow is all forage, plus some minerals supplemented if necessary. In less desirable circumstances, the cow will eat the forage in the Florida scrub or swamps. But we typically want our animals to eat from improved pasture grasses.
Bahia Grass— There are several types of Bahia grass, but all kinds seem to be the perfect type of grass for Florida’s hot, humid, and rainy climate. The Argentine Bahia in particular arrived in Florida in the 1940’s to provide pasturage for cattle ranches in the middle and Southern parts of the state. What ranchers have found is that this grass can hold off heavier grazing. Cattle are also less likely to destroy the grass stand when there are too many cows feeding in an area. And when it comes to diet, improved pasture grasses provide optimal nutrition and the key to maintaining this is ensuring the right grass for your environment.
Other Grasses— The pastures at Riverbend Ranch were used to cut hay before I ended up grazing cattle here, which meant there was already a good deal pasture planted in Bermunda grass, a warm-season grass that flourishes in full, direct sun and under good drainage. It tolerates significant heat, salt and humidity, and is highly drought resistant. Bermuda grass also has a high nutritional value for cows, with 9% to %16 protein.
However, Bermuda grass isn't as easy to maintain as Bahia so we haven't worked to keep the other grasses out of our pastures. We now have areas made up of Bermuda grass and Bahiagrass, as well as some other perennials such as Chicory, Rape, and Crimson Clover that we over seeded to improve soil health and provide high-quality forage for the cows. Many ranchers plant warm season and cool season perennial or annual legumes, for added nutrition, and to improve soil health.
Soil Quality— As for soil quality, we take soil samples from all our pastures each year and send them to a laboratory at the University of Florida for analysis. The results help us determine how to fertilize our fields that year. We either use a commercial fertilizer or chicken manure depending on the answers we receive from soil tests. Many ranchers, myself included, work with their county livestock agent to make the best management decisions based on their soil tests.
Florida ranchers follow the Best Management Practices of the Natural Resources Conservation Service to make sure that their pasture management practices are improving the soil health and not harming the water resources. As we run some of our cows along the Withlacoochee River, the NRCS sends an agent out here to work with us, to review our management practices, and to confirm that we’re complying with the BMP protocols. For example, we ensure that the perimeter fence at Riverbend Ranch is far enough from the riverbank that the nitrogen from the manure is in no danger of running off and seeping into the river.
The goal of growing high-quality grass is to guarantee our cows have the best nutrition possible, while improving the quality of the land that the cattle graze on. For the consumer this means exceptional quality meat. When I stand back and look across our lush, green pasture, I know that we’ve picked the right grasses and paid serious attention to the health of our soil. It’s a beautiful sight as the sun sets on our land and I know we’re doing things right.