What's the one good thing about making a mistake? Learning from it. Thus, three range management specialists weigh in on the most common grazing management mistakes they see and strategies to correct these errors.
Missouri's Maurice Davis, retired Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) state grassland conservationist, says the most frequent mistake he saw during his career was producers allowing livestock to graze pastures too short. Grazing a pasture to the ground, either because it's overstocked or the livestock have been left there too long, "does not leave enough residual plant material to carry on photosynthesis," he says.
As a result, Davis says root growth stoppage begins. "That means top growth of the plant also stops," he adds. Specifically, research shows when up to 50% of a plant's leaf volume is removed, root growth stoppage is about 2-4%. If 60% of the leaf volume is removed, root growth stoppage escalates to about 50%. At 80% removal, the roots have no regrowth.
Davis has a long history of working with the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center and the annual management intensive grazing schools it hosts. To prevent overgrazing, he suggests producers monitor when to move animals to new pasture based on residual plant material — the green stuff left after grazing.
Davis and most range managers advocate the rule, "take half and leave half," meaning once the forage has been grazed to about half its volume across the pasture, cattle should be moved to a new pasture.
Pastures can be grazed shorter, but then the rest period required for recovery becomes longer, Davis says. As a guideline on introduced pastures, he says plants should not be grazed below a minimum of 3 in.
Be prepared to adapt
John McLain, a range consultant with Resource Concepts, Inc., based in Nevada, counts lack of flexibility as a reoccurring mistake in range management situations.
"We're hearing the word adaptive management more these days," McLain says. "But in the past, there has been an absence of flexibility."
He adds, "Good land managers have to allow for flexibility and adaptive management in grazing systems to achieve desired objectives."
Similarly, Texas rancher John "Chip" Merrill says the most common mistake he sees producers make is not reducing stocking rates soon enough when they realize they're in trouble during drought.
Merrill, who directed Texas Christian University's Ranch Management Program from 1961 to 1996, says, "It takes nerve to cutback when you'd rather not, but if producers adjust as they go, the resource is still in good shape, the cattle are in good condition, and the markets haven't declined."
He adds, "It is much less of a risk to adjust early than to hold on too long."