I want to apologize in advance if I sound too critical of the way some of you graze. However, I’ve seen many ranches become much more productive and profitable, and some even pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy, by their managers learning how to manage grazing.
I have the opportunity to visit with many ranchers. When asking about their grazing program or the way they graze, I get answers that tell me they’ve heard about grazing management and perhaps watched a neighbor across the fence, but really don’t know much about grazing and its effects on soil and plant productivity and health. Too often, they assume that, if they get the stocking rate right, all is well. However, grazing management goes way beyond stocking rate.
Effects on plants and soil
The way you graze has numerous effects on the plants and the soil. This will, in turn, have a number of effects on the water cycle, mineral cycle, sunlight energy flow and biological succession. These will be followed by effects on future productivity.
I usually hear about some sort of rotation where the same pastures are used at the same time each year with movement from pasture to pasture based on the calendar. This suggests the use of two very powerful tools for grazing management – time and timing:
• Time is primarily about “how long” livestock are left in a pasture or paddock, and how long that pasture or paddock is allowed to recover (rest) before it’s grazed again. While the time spent in a paddock, and the time allowed for recovery, are both important, the time for recovery is more important.
Most of us start with a few (8-12) paddocks/herd and advance from there to perhaps more than 20. If we’re going to protect recovery time, then the length of stay in a paddock is determined primarily by the desired length of recovery and the number of paddocks available.
For good grazing management, time control can’t be tied to the calendar. It is planned and determined by the season of use, and the plants’ growth rate as they are being grazed and during recovery. This will vary greatly from year to year and is highly dependent on rainfall and its timing, as well as temperatures.
• Timing is about “when” pastures are grazed. Since your cattle need to be somewhere 365 days of the year (preferably grazing), unavoidably some plants will be grazed at very sensitive times. You use timing to avoid grazing the plants at those biologically sensitive stages in successive years.
Timing can also be affected by:
- A need to be at or near certain locations for cattle working and shipping. Many of the good graziers I know brand and work calves at portable facilities in the pastures to allow more flexibility with pasture use timing. They also have several paddocks near the shipping and cow-working facilities to enable better timing from year to year.
- A desire or need to avoid defined places to protect sensitive species at critical times. This might include critical nesting habitat for some birds or a fawning area for deer, etc.
It’s planned, time-controlled grazing
Many of us call this“planned, time-controlled grazing.” It’s not a cookie-cutter approach. Even though we rotate through a number of paddocks, we don’t like to call it “rotational grazing” because it’s rarely, if ever, the same from year to year. In fact, those who rotate in the same manner each year with a set number of days in and out of each pasture are probably doing “controlled overgrazing.”
While not difficult, the planning process for good grazing takes time and thought about the various factors that must be considered. You plan ahead, you execute the plan, you pay attention (monitor) as you are grazing, and you modify the plan to fit the changing conditions. The plan must be flexible.
The primary objective of good grazing is to improve ranch productivity and grazing quality. We do that through manipulation of eco-system processes. We will try to graze in a way that will:
- Capture more of the rainfall that comes and make it available for plant growth,
- Improve nutrient cycling and
- Increase sunlight energy flow to photosynthetic plant leaves, which produces animal feed that ultimately becomes food or fiber for human use.
We might say that we are creating a solar panel. The solar panel gets bigger and more effective when our management reduces runoff, reduces evaporation, and increases infiltration and the ability of the soil to hold moisture. It also gets bigger when there are more plant leaves and the leaves are bigger. And it becomes more effective when there are plants that green-up very early in the growing season, others that are green throughout the growing season and some that are green very late in the growing season.
Everything that we, through our livestock, and Mother Nature do to the land will have an effect on ecosystem process and will cause changes in biological succession. Our management will have a huge effect on the direction of that succession. Will it be positive or negative toward our goals?
My next couple of articles will expand on this topic.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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