In the April issue, I described four ecosystem functions: water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow and biological succession. Our grazing management can have a profound effect on these functions, with the results either improving or diminishing the land’s health and productivity.
None of us want to harm the land we manage; however, too often, we manage without understanding the consequences of our decisions. It’s commonly believed that stocking rate can cure all grazing problems, and while it is important, there are other considerations that are more important. After all, when stocking rate is reduced (even significantly) in season-long grazing, overgrazing and over-resting will occur side by side in the same pasture.
In grazing management, I first think about “time and timing.” Time deals with how long the livestock stay in a pasture and, more importantly, how long the pasture will rest or recover before the livestock return. Timing addresses when (at what time in relationship to plant growth and recovery) you will be in a pasture.
In my long career, I’ve worked with irrigated pastures and sub-irrigated meadows, ranges receiving 12-20 in. of annual precipitation, and ranges receiving 7-11 in. of rainfall. Using the same principles and understanding of ecology and plant growth, the elements of time and timing are applied very differently in each of these circumstances.
After nearly 30 years of practicing planned, time-controlled grazing, I’ve learned we never do it perfectly; however, grazing and land health (ecosystem functions) are much better when we manage our grazing with time control. Ideal time control would not allow the same plant to be bitten twice in the same graze period. It would also allow adequate recovery of plants before the pasture is grazed again.
Since “ideal” is usually impossible, I much prefer to ensure adequate recovery of the entire pasture before returning, to protect plants from a second bite in the same graze period.
Most of the good grazing managers I know developed their system of pastures or paddocks somewhat slowly over time. In most situations, 10 or more paddocks/herd are needed to keep plants from being bitten a second time in the graze period, while still allowing enough time out of the paddock for good recovery. However, 20 or more paddocks/herd are even better. You don’t have to do this all at once.
Adequate recovery time can be debated. However, I find that more recovery time is needed than I originally thought, especially in low or moderate and erratic rainfall areas. In most rangeland areas, 80% or more of the feed is grown in 60 days or less. This means that grazing must be very carefully managed during those 60 days, though this doesn’t imply that care isn’t needed the rest of the year as well. And, the feed produced in those 60 days needs to be budgeted over the rest of the year.
In low-rainfall areas, I’ve been using more than a year recovery. In typical years, a year’s recovery might be enough. However, I don’t want to graze at the same time in the following year. In areas of moderate rainfall and a mix of warm- and cool-season grasses, I might take a very quick grazeout of each paddock early in the growing season – not taking nearly all that is produced.
However, cattle almost seem to prefer annual grasses and forbs (weeds) at this time of year, and it can almost be free feed. I would then follow with either one or two times in each paddock until next year’s green-up. On irrigated pastures, my tendency is to be quite intensive and leave a good residual for photosynthesis to continue, then return before seed set or bloom.
Since livestock need to be somewhere 365 days of the year – and I prefer to have them grazing – livestock will be grazing some plants in their very early growth stage when they are very vulnerable. Therefore, I want to change timing during the growing season.
I don’t want to graze the pasture at the same plant growth stage in successive years. In fact, I’d like several years to pass before using the pasture at the same time again.
Stock density, not to be confused with stocking rate, is another powerful tool that can be used to improve distribution of animals, dung and urine. As stock density increases, grazing becomes more uniform. Meanwhile, the delivery and placement of supplements in the pasture can also create a herd or trampling effect. This can “wake up” ground by the trampling of old, dead and ungrazed plant material into the soil, thus improving the water and mineral cycle and allowing new and existing plants to flourish.
It’s good to wear your nutritionist hat when deciding how much supplement to take to the pasture. But, once in the pasture, wear the range manager hat and decide where the supplement can be placed for the most good for the range. If livestock are going to follow you excitedly, make good use of the trampling effect.
Time control and stock density require herding or fencing. Most will elect to fence. Simple electric fencing will work very well in most situations. However, before any fencing is done, a complete ranch plan should be made with provisions for adequate stock water and future paddock divisions.
In my experience, stock water amount and placement has been inadequate for good grazing. Be prepared to develop stock water before fencing; and, remember, it is much better to overdesign and have too much water, than to have too little. You need to anticipate an increase in stocking rate as your grazing practices improve.
I could talk of other range management tools such as fire, chemical treatments of weeds and brush, mechanical methods of brush reduction or new seedings, etc. However, I’ve focused on time control and stock density because they’re inextricably linked and must be continually managed.
You can’t work on one of these powerful tools without the other. By properly using these two tools, along with some trampling or herd effect, you can reduce, or even stop, overgrazing and over-resting of plants. You can improve each of the ecological functions and the productivity of your land. In all of my years of ranching, this has been the most exciting and rewarding factor.
Two points to close on:
• In almost all situations of which I’m aware, you can add considerably more carrying capacity with fence, water development and good grazing than by spending the same amount of money for more ground. In many cases, the water development will pay without the fencing. However, the fencing allows the benefits of time control in all of its dimensions along with the many benefits of stock density.
• There are very good short-courses that teach good grazing far more effectively than I can in a few short articles. Don’t try to teach yourself. Often, those who try to improve grazing management without good training fall into the trap of a fixed-time rotation – staying the same number of days in each pasture or paddock and having the same recovery period regardless of the time of year or weather differences. In too many cases, this results in controlled overgrazing. Find a good grazing practitioner, watch, listen carefully and learn. Or, go to a good grazing school. Better yet, do both.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at email@example.com.