Now is a good time to take a ride through your pastures as you plan for next spring. That’s because first frost is one of the major trigger points in monitoring the condition and health of your pastures, says Tim Steffens, Texas AgriLife Extension Service rangeland specialist in Canyon, TX.
“If I’m not looking at enough for those cows to make it between now and when I expect green-up, it’s time to make a decision and not wait until they run out of something to eat,” he says.
But what should you look for and what records should you keep?
“One is rainfall,” he says, and not just for the benefit of the coffee shop crowd. Keep a running 12- month or growing season tally of how much fell, how hard it fell, and when it fell. That way, you have an idea of its effectiveness. “It’s not just the rainfall, but what’s my grass doing as a result,” he says.
“The other thing we can look at is manure,” he says. “After a while, you can pretty well gauge what the cattle are getting to eat by looking at the manure. If it’s lying flat and has a little divot in the middle, times are pretty fat. If that manure is piling up and has little wrinkles in the side, things aren’t so special right now.”
Then look at cow condition. But just like a line-up of yearling heifers paraded at the state fair, make sure you’re looking at the animal and not the hair. “A lot of people will talk about how grass is getting hard now and cattle are making gains in the fall,” Steffens says. “They’re not making great gains when that grass is starting to go dormant. They’re growing hair. Make sure you keep that in mind as you look at body condition.”
Then look closely at defoliation patterns. “When are they eating, where are they eating, how often are they defoliating it, how intensely are they defoliating it?” If you know that, you know which areas of the pasture are being used heavily and which aren’t being used at all and can adjust your stocking density and rotational grazing periods accordingly, he says.
There are several ways you can monitor range condition over time beside “cow pie-ology” and body condition scores. Nearly everybody carries a phone, he says. At the same time every year, and at the same place every time, take a picture. Print it, put a date on it and describe where it was. That allows you to look at how conditions are changing over time, he says, and if you need to adjust your management.
Another simple way to monitor grazing usage is an exclosure cages. “What’s inside the cage relative to the use outside the cage?”
With either pictures or exclosure cages, Steffens says you want to collect that data at critical times of the year. “If I’m continuously stocked, I want to do this periodically throughout the season. If I’m moving cattle from pasture to pasture, I want to do it when I leave.”
If we don’t keep track of things, we start to think the way things are is the way they’ve always been, he says. But remember there’s a big difference between data and information. “If you’ve got a bunch of numbers and all they do is sit in a file and you don’t use them to make management decisions, you’re wasting time.”