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Converting Old Grove to Pasture: Things to Consider
Bridget Stice, Polk County Cooperative Extension Service, Bartow
As Citrus Greening has wreaked havoc on the citrus industry, we are seeing more and more groves being converted to pasture. The upside to this is that the land remains in agriculture production. Agricultural land, especially ranch land, is important for providing green space for native plant and wildlife habitat, aquifer recharge and carbon recovery. Land that is kept in agriculture production will qualify for greenbelt classification that will provide property tax relief. There also might be some benefits to the current market lows that should see an upswing based on the cyclical cattle market. But there are some things that need to be taken into consideration before choosing to put the land into beef production.
First thing to consider is how to go about clearing the land. To push or cut. Pushing is expensive and will require grading of the land after but is likely the only realistic option for establishing pasture. It is estimated that the cost of pushing and clearing grove land is approximately $250/acre. Cutting at the stump will require stump treatment, the remaining stumps will impede efforts at establishing pasture forage and the remaining beds will leave the ground un-level making maintenance work on a pasture extremely difficult.
Once the land is cleared, the condition of the soil must be considered. Generally residual herbicides are not an issue, but it would be good to have an idea of what herbicides were used in the past on the grove and if any had a residual effect. How might these herbicides impact a forage variety? Target soil pH for citrus land is 6.5. Target pH for bahiagrass, the most common pasture forage, is 5.5. Bahiagrass does not do well at soil pH above 6.4. On the other hand, bermudagrass does tolerate the higher soil pH. However, bermudagrass requires a much higher degree of management than bahiagrass.
Establishing pasture forage is another consideration. Pasture establishment takes time and money. From start to grazing, one can expect three months of unavailability of the land. In 2014, it was estimated that cost of establishing bahiagrass was $317.65/per acre and bermudagrass was $461.49/acre*.
Pasture management requires good weed management. Weeds will be a problem. Identifying the weeds that are problematic and developing a plan to address them is necessary. It is estimated that weed management in pastures costs $60/acre.
Unlike grove trees, cattle move about. Thus enclosing and fencing the pasture is necessary. Before fencing in an area, keep in mind how animals will be moved when processing, water sources and shade. It will be much easier if these are kept in mind when it is time to work the cattle. Cost of fencing is estimated at $1.75/foot. There may be some cost share programs to help with cross-fencing pastures.
Along these same lines, processing facilities need to be considered for managing the livestock. Cattle will need to be treated at some time and a good set of working pens will be necessary. Is there a set of pens available on adjoining property? Would it be feasible to load the cattle on a trailer and haul them to a set of cow pens? If not, a set of cow pens will be necessary. Building a set of pens from used material costs an estimated minimum of $1,500, provided one can get their hands on used materials at a discounted cost. Another alternative is a set of portable cow pens that cost, at minimum, $1,500 not including a squeeze chute.
One must also consider shade and water for the cattle. Most groves, once pushed, are devoid of trees that would typically provide shade for cattle. Cattle require shade. While groves have an existing irrigation system, attention must be paid to placement of water sources so that is available in all pastures. There may be some cost-share programs for water sources.
Lastly, one must consider the return on investment that they can expect once they have delved into the cattle business. In a January, 2017, Drovers article, John Nalivka, of Sterling Marketing, projected a loss of $21 per cow in 2017. While this may seem disheartening, cow profit margins are cyclical. Now may be the best time to get in the business while prices are low. Once the herd is established and producing a steady calf crop, we may be seeing the upswing in the market.
There is much to consider and weigh when deciding what to do with old grove land. In addition to the tax benefits, land that remains in agricultural production is important for our greenspace that provides so many environmental benefits. Hopefully the land will remain in agriculture production but it is prudent to make decisions based on thoughtful planning.
*See UF/IFAS EDIS publication SS-AGR-381