The rainfall we received in January was very welcome and now we are wondering when the next beneficial rain will come.

The month of February in the Coastal Bend was one of the driest on record and, in recent years, the phrase "driest on record" has become too common.

Farmers have been busy planting corn and grain sorghum, while topsoil moisture is leaving us fast. Thankfully, we have good deep soil moisture thanks to last year's good rains in July and September.

If you are in the cattle business, you know it's been a long winter and you are tired of feeding hay and protein. We need rain to jumpstart our warm-season grasses. Unfortunately, when one looks at long-range forecasts, below normal rainfall is predicted for the next couple of months.

We all know that if you are in the cattle business, you are also in the grass production business. Forages are the foundations of a successful cow-calf program. In general, the better the ranch's forage system, the greater the resulting animal production, and, yes, we need rain to drive this system.

Improved pastures should be fertilized according to a recent (within two to three years) soil test recommendation, especially now with the high fertilizer costs. Proper fertilization will enhance vigorous plant growth.

A ton of forage with 10 percent crude protein contains 50 pounds of nitrogen, 10 pounds of phosphorus, 40 pounds of potassium and varying amounts of the other chemical elements needed for growth (i.e., sulfur, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, boron, manganese, molybdenum, and chlorine).

A ton of forage will not be produced if any of these nutrients are lacking. Most soils have enough nutrients and nitrogen to produce one to two tons of forage per acre.

Improved grasses were selected for higher yield potentials and need additional nutrients (especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) to produce at an economical level. In grazing systems, only a small amount of the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium contained in the forage that a cow eats is retained in the animal's body.

Most is recycled by urine and/or feces back to the soil. This occurs in grazing systems. Once phosphorus and potassium levels are brought up to a high level, they should remain there without extra fertilization. Nitrogen will still be required.

In hay systems, every ton removed from the field will remove 50 pounds nitrogen, 10 pounds phosphorus and 40 pounds potassium. This will eventually have to be replaced by fertilization.

Therefore, the best system is rotational grazing and harvesting hay from the excess growth in the spring and fall.

If one neglects to put out the needed phosphorus and potassium, over time the improved grasses will slowly loose vigor and be replaced by invader grass species.

Weed control in pastures greatly affects forage quantity and quality. Broadleaf and grassy weeds infest many pastures.

Adequate rainfall, large weed seed populations, and a long growing season are conducive for weed growth, but at the expense of forage growth.

Many weed species germinate earlier than spring grass green-up, using soil moisture and fertility for rapid growth. Only small amounts of forage are produced in weedy pastures, even with proper fertilization. Weeds can be controlled or prevented through maintaining a thick, vigorous grass stand, or by using mechanical (shredding or plowing) or chemical methods.

In native pastures one pound of grass is produced for each pound of weed controlled.

In result demonstrations in improved pastures, two to seven pounds of grass were produced for each pound of weed controlled.

Grazing systems can help to improve forage production and animal performance.

While each grazing system has its place, use of the same grazing system on all forage systems will not always be profitable.

Rotational grazing systems on native rangeland are designed to maintain or increase the presence and vigor of desired plant species.

The theory is that as these higher quality desirable plants become more vigorous and predominate in the pasture, livestock performance will improve.

Bermudagrass does not require periods of rest for stand maintenance and vigor, thus the rotation schedules are used to control utilization and quality.

Rotating bermudagrass pastures hardly ever increases average daily gain.

The goal of rotating such pastures is better utilization of forage to increase gain/acre, or to allow for other management practices.

One factor that will enhance all forages is adequate rainfall, so lets hope that this spring will bring some good rains to South Texas.

Jeffrey Stapper is the Agricultural and Natural Resources Agent for Nueces County. Readers may contact him at 767-5217.