HOLLYWOOD — When Aaron Stam began a groundbreaking field trial in Brighton to see if cattle will eat smutgrass, he hoped to prove the animals would consume the nuisance invasive weed.
Young and tender smutgrass has plenty of nutritional value, but when it grows to maturity the grass forms a seed head with no nutritional value.
For the experiment to succeed, the cows would have to eat really fast.
Two years later, the trial appears be a success so far. The cattle in what Stam calls Pasture X seem to be thriving.
About 25 University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF-IFAS) extension agents, state specialists and ranchers attended the South Florida management tour and workshop Sept. 19 and visited Pasture X.
Stam, a federally recognized Tribal extension program agent, and Alex Johns, the Tribe’s natural resource director, described the pasture and the method of getting the cows to graze on smutgrass.
Both men know that most ranchers want to kill smutgrass, so demonstrating to the group how to manage it for forage was the objective of the tour.
“Can we use smutgrass as forage?” Stam asked the group. “Yes we can, with the right management strategy. I’ve learned a lot about our forages doing this.”
Competitive rotational grazing places more cows in smaller pastures and forces them to compete for whatever forage is available.
Stam looked for spots on the Brighton Reservation with the thickest smutgrass; he wanted the experiment to be a challenge. About 80 percent of the site was covered in smutgrass.
Pasture X is a 20-acre parcel divided into four five-acre paddocks. The animals are rotated to a different paddock every seven days. The first group in 2017 consisted of 36 heifers. Although they ate voraciously, they couldn’t keep up with the smutgrass. It grew faster than they could consume it.
The normal practice of cattle ranching stocks a pasture with one cow per two-acres. Pasture X is stocked with two animals per one acre, a significant increase over the norm.
Since the heifers are moved often, the result is a continuous diet of tender, protein-rich smutgrass. The animals are also fed a molasses supplement with minerals.
“If you put a fat kid at a buffet and tell him he has all day to eat, he’ll choose pizza and pudding,” Stam said. “If you tell him he only has 10 minutes, he’ll eat what’s in front of him. It’s the same with cows in competitive rotational grazing.”
The first group of three-year-olds who grazed in Pasture X for a year had a conception rate of 96 percent.
The second group of animals that was brought in for the second year was much larger; 78 heifers are now grazing in Pasture X. These cows were on feed for a few months before being transferred to the smaller pasture.
“Not every one of them thinks they are in paradise,” Stam said. “A lot of them only want to eat Bahiagrass. There was a learning curve, but now they go right to the smutgrass.”
The amount of heifers in the five-acre paddocks seems to be about right. Stam said they are keeping up with the smutgrass, whereas the original 36 could not.
Next month he will set up a portable scale to gauge the heifers’ average daily gain. He hopes to see one to one and a half pounds.
An unexpected benefit of the competitive rotational grazing is the appearance of Bermuda and Bahiagrass. One paddock even had some white clover.
“As the cows grazed the smutgrass, it let light and air in which made the other grasses grow,” Stam said. “That was a real bonus.”
Stam and Johns answered questions from the group, including ones about mowing the smutgrass. Johns said they have looked at implementing competitive rotational grazing on a larger scale.
“On a large ranch, you have to coordinate mowing,” Johns said. “After seeing this, we can cut down on mowing. We’ve changed our strategy; now we mow or burn just a portion of it. We used to not manage the pastures very well. Since we started managing it, we need less feed.”
And less feed means a stronger bottom line. The Tribe has been fighting an expensive battle with smutgrass for a long time. Managing it by using it for forage could add up to a significant cost savings, adding to that bottom line.
“There is a bit more labor involved, but not much,” Stam said. “I’ve trained the cows to move from paddock to paddock with pellets.”
In May 2018 and June 2019, Stam gave presentations on smutgrass management at the Ona Cattle Research and Education Center’s smutgrass field day.
The event was mostly about how to kill smutgrass, but Stam talked about how to use it as forage. Most of the attendees at the forage management workshop in Brighton were also advocates of eradicating smutgrass.
“There are some non-believers here,” Stam said. “But one man heard what I said at the Ona smutgrass field day. He took my advice and had calves 30 pounds heavier. That makes me feel pretty good. It made my day.”
The ranchers at the forage management workshop listened to Stam with some skepticism since he is an extension agent and not a rancher himself.
“It was good that Alex [Johns] reaffirmed what I said,” Stam said. “People pay attention to that. As the former president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, he represented thousands of head. He wouldn’t have backed this up without real results.”
Before the group left the pasture for lunch and an afternoon of classes, Stam and Johns invited them to come back any time for a second look.