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Plant Vigor and Range/Pasture Production

The Soil Conservation Service was created in 1933 as an effort to protect the United State’s most valuable resource. Today, we call it the Natural Resources Conservation Service and it continues to provide technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers.

This article comes to us from J.L. Lantow and the February 1945 issue of Soil Conservation. It’s a good reminder of how long the principles of good grazing have been around.

Merely to be alive is important, but to have abundant health is still more important. This is as true of plants as of animals. Certainly a healthy, vigorous plant or animal has the advantage when competing with an unhealthy one and who would question which would provide the more forage, beef, mutton or milk?

Ranch Day, Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center, photo courtesy of NMSU. Before joining the Soil Conservation Service as regional chief of the range division of the Soil Conservation Service, J.L. Lantow was the head of the animal husbandry department at New Mexico State University. There, in 1925 he founded the College Ranch, purchasing 6,000 from a local rancher. To support the research efforts there, Congress transferred and additional 55,000. acres to NMSU. Research continues there today.

Forage plants can live without livestock, but livestock cannot live without forage plants. Too often it is the case that the forage plants cannot live, or live only in a weakened condition, because of their treatment by livestock. Actually they both could be a great help to each other. If this could be, why not have it so?

The care of the a range demands frequent diagnosis of conditions on range or pasture. The good diagnostician sizes up the situation correctly, and if he doesn’t know the treatment he can look in the book to see what to do. Doctor and range operator have similar problems which call for both knowledge and experience. There is this difference: people who do not feel well go to the doctor and tell their story; ranch operator must go the the range himself to discover what is wrong. There is none so blind as he who does not know how to see. To see the things that are happening on the range, sight alone is not enough. You must know how to read the story of the range after you see it. Our ranges are so much Chinese to too many range advisors and operators.

Health and vigor determine plant competition and forage production.

Repeated close grazing during the growing season shortened the root system of the plant on the right. The plant on the left gets more water and food, and produces more than the plant at the right. Since it is healthy, it will be able to compete well with poor species that try to invade the range.

Vigor in forage plants is almost synonymous with health. It is the driving force which governs poor production; and decides whether certain forage plants can compete favorably or unfavorably with less desirable ones. Vigor certainly is the key to plant succession. If vigor is so important, how do we recognize it, and what do we do to build it up? A few simple guides help in recognizing vigor.

1. Large stem and leaf growth, speaking comparatively.

2. For the bunch-type grasses, a bunch-type growth a the base of the plant or tuft with no undue crowding.

3. Good volume growth or good height in average or favorable rainfall years.

4. Early Spring growth, if moisture is available.

5. A well-developed and deep-root system.

It may be well at this point to inject the reminder that plants in a state of high vigor may die, or a portion of the tuft may die, from lack of moisture. If a portion of the tuft dies, due to lack of moisture, but the plant has not been penalized by use, it is quite likely that when there again is enough moisture and a suitable temperature prevails, the plant will grow quite luxuriantly, indicating that its loss of vigor was only temporary. Such plants retain an adequate root system and have food stored in the portion of the crown or roots that remains alive. If enough density is lost, however, other plants can invade. In some types of plants too great a density results from close grazing. Some bunch-type species then will take on a sod-forming aspect. When this occurs, vigor is lower than it should be.

Successive stages in loss of vigor are shown in these blue grama grass plants. Compare the amount of forage produced by the plant at the right with that of the two at the left.

There is a great deal of difference in results when the plant is low in vigor. A weakened plant lacks the food reserve and the root system to respond to rainfall or recover after drought. The plant starts to grow, but its low vitality does not allow it to produce the volume of the vigorous plant. The vigorous plant has the root system to compete with the plants of its kind and with any other species that may be at hand. For some reason, our most desirable plants ordinarily dominate over the less desirable forage plants, or even the undesirable forage plants, provided they are not penalized by misuse.

Let there be no mistake. For the most part the plants that we see are present because we gave them a chance in one way or another. The whole story, then, is that the healthy, vigorous plant is able to compete with other species and produce more than the less vigorous plant. The desirable grasses, if vigorous, prevent the invasion of the plants we do not want.

Five years ago these two pastures looked alike. Proper grazing since then on tract to left of fence made the difference. Grass on that side has regained its vigor and almost eliminated snake weed.


Training of people to use tools in performing the operation for which they were designed is highly important. Too often, however, the tools become all important, and the operation only secondary. On the range, both novice and veteran need to put into effect only a few basic management practices to get result. Science reveals to us that vigor of the plants is affected adversely by:

1. Too early use.

2. Too frequent use.

3. Too close use.

If the best vigor and the highest plant production are sought, all three of the above dangers must be avoided. Don’t fool yourself, you can’t ignore them and bring high production. It’s as important to have the right idea about plant growth as to have a perfect range management plan.

Project your management of the range on the feed available rather than upon what you think you may get. Then there’ll be less worry about when it’s going to rain.


How Can You Provide for Plant Vigor?

A good first step is to know what’s growing in your pasture or on your range. I collected these online grass identification resources to help you. I also put together this list of my favorite grass ID guides available for purchase on Amazon. (On Pasture gets a small percentage of each purchase to support our work for you.)

Next, check out this three part series from Joe Trlica. He covers how grass responds to grazing, describes how it grows and how we can use that to manage grazing, and finishes with the roles of cool and warm season grasses. Here’s the first:

Grass Growth and Response to Grazing

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  1. Thanks for this great set of information.

    The 1945 article shows that knowledge of grazing management for range/ pasture productivity and plant health has
    been around for a long time.

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