It seems many ranchers are more interested in their cattle than their land. I love animal breeding and can understand how many of us get caught up in trying to make our livestock better.
It’s very easy to fall into the “more” trap – more growth, more milk, more marbling, more muscle, etc. – with little regard for the unintended consequences and the costs. As a young manager, I, too, was caught in this trap. Luckily, however, a couple of mentors, and exposure to a few different ideas in my managerial youth, taught me that bigger and more is not always better. In addition, I learned that, believe it or not, well-managed grazing is a much more powerful tool for ranch profitability than cattle genetics.
In my May issue column, I discussed the importance of time and timing in the planning of grazing. Without understanding the effects of time and timing on the physiology of the plant, it’s difficult – perhaps even impossible – to plan well. After all, we use time and timing to prevent, or at least reduce or minimize, overgrazing.
What is overgrazing? First, it is not being overstocked, although being overstocked can contribute to overgrazing. It’s possible, and I think probable, except in severe drought, that many ranches are “understocked and overgrazed.” In fact, in many pastures, it’s common to see both overgrazing and “over resting” side by side in the same pasture. If both can be stopped, stocking rate can increase.
So, again, what is overgrazing? It’s the repeated defoliation of the plant without allowing that plant adequate time to recover from the effects of the previous grazing. There are two ways to overgraze:
• The first is to retain cattle so long in a pasture that plants grazed in the first few days acquire sufficient regrowth to be grazed again. If livestock are left for long periods in the same area, this can happen repeatedly to the same plants. This weakens the plant and reduces its ability to recover, especially in times of stress such as drought.
If allowed, animals tend to return first to their favorite plants for regrazing, even while many plants in the pasture may not have been grazed at all. To prevent such overgrazing, cattle must be removed from the pasture before the plant has regrown sufficiently for a second defoliation.
• The second instance of overgrazing occurs when cattle are returned to a pasture before it’s sufficiently recovered from the previous grazing. This situation can allow for a significant number of plants to be overgrazed.
If I’m in the early stages of developing my fencing and water, I may not be able to avoid both of the above-mentioned ways to overgraze. But, if forced to, I would prefer avoiding the second scenario, and have some overgrazing occur as a result of staying too long in a pasture rather than coming back too soon.
To reduce or stop overgrazing and over resting, the number of paddocks or pastures is important. A sufficient number of paddocks are needed so that cattle don’t remain in any so long that overgrazing occurs. Each paddock must be allowed an adequate chance to fully recover before being grazed again.
Ranches vary in climate, elevation, rainfall, temperature, etc., but I’ve never felt able to graze very well without at least 8-12 paddocks/herd. In fact, most of us who have practiced planned, time-controlled grazing progress fairly quickly to 20 or more paddocks/herd after we see what can happen.
Here’s why. As you increase the number of paddocks for each herd, the paddocks become smaller, while the herd size stays the same. Thus, stock density increases. As stock density increases, grazing becomes more uniform and over resting diminishes. It’s thus easier to get some trampling of ungrazed plants into the soil, which enhances the water and mineral cycles. You begin to see less space between plants, as well as a greater variety of plants, more plant vigor, and more litter on the soil surface. This is accompanied by less runoff and, you have to assume, less evaporation.
Enjoy what you are reading? Read more from Burke Teichert on pasture management.
Remember, we’re using our livestock, their grazing and various forms of animal impact to improve water and mineral cycles. This allows more vigorous plants that capture more sunlight for more total plant growth. If we can retain just a bit more of the rainfall that comes rather than have it evaporate, run off or percolate rapidly through a poor soil with low organic matter, a little more grass can start to grow and a whole set of interconnected activities of plants, soil, animals and microorganisms begins to move forward.
I cannot, in a few short articles, begin to tell you all you need to know to effectively plan your grazing, as well as the water and fence development needed to make it work efficiently. That’s why I suggest that, to really learn how to graze, find someone who already knows how to do it, has good results, and will help you. Better yet, there are several very good short course-type schools that are well taught. Find and attend one.
I first attended a school or two, and then found others who were already using what I had learned at the schools. Combining the two provided both the know-how and the planning tools, plus the confidence, to move forward. You can, too.
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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