Grazing management strategies vary with time and pressure
By Doug Rich
Grazing sounds simple, turn the cows, calves, goats or sheep out and let them eat grass. But, at the Missouri Forage and Grassland Council annual conference, producers learned there are many different grazing management strategies.
Producers can choose from a variety of grazing strategies ranging from high stock density grazing, grazing for a healthy ecosystem, New Zealand style grazing or patch burn grazing. Each style has its own benefits depending on the individual producer's available resources, labor and goals.
Chad Peterson, a rancher from Newport, Neb., has been using high density grazing on his north central Nebraska ranch. His original interest in low input seasonal grass farming started with a trip to Mongolia, while he was in college at the University of Nebraska. The idea for high-density stocking rates came from grazing guru, Alan Savory.
Peterson does not figure his stocking rate in animals per acre but pounds per acre. His goal is 1 million pounds of beef per acre.
"I picked 1 million pounds as a goal because that is about as tight as I can pack them in there," Peterson said.
That stocking rate figures out to about 1,000 cows per acre or 300 cows on one-third of an acre.
Peterson has long, skinny pastures, that he subdivides with electric fencing. The cattle are moved to fresh grass several times a day. Once a paddock is grazed off, Peterson does not graze it again that year.
A 20-foot feed bunk is used for watering the cattle. Peterson has watered up to 900 pair from this single tank.
"As long as it is not a trip to go back to water, it works just fine," Peterson said.
His ranch is about two-thirds upland sandy ground and one-third low marshy areas. To date, he has developed about 2,000 acres of the low ground for his high density grazing system.
Peterson said manure distribution has been great and he has seen an increase in organic matter and warm season grasses. Peterson said warm season grasses have deeper root systems and are more drought tolerant.
"I don't know of a more economical way to get land turned around," Peterson said.
When cattle in a high-density system are ready to move to fresh grass there is not much vegetation left in that paddock. Laura Paine, Grazing and Organic Agriculture Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, favors a system that leaves some grass in the paddock.
"Well-managed livestock farming is not only compatible with a healthy environment but, in some areas, it is key to maintaining a healthy agricultural economy, viable rural communities and ecosystem services that society depends on," Paine said. "Livestock farming is uniquely suited to achieving what some call the triple bottom line of profitability, quality of life and being environmentally sound.
Paine said well-managed pasture based livestock farms can provide high quality wildlife habitat.
"We documented 10 times as many grassland birds on well-managed pastures as are found on crop fields and twice as many are observed on alfalfa fields," Paine said.
A diverse pasture is what nature prefers. Simple pasture mixtures might include two to three species of plants, while a complex mixture might include four to six species or more.
"I encourage producers to use complex mixtures where soils or landscapes are variable or when they are not sure what type of management will be used. Diverse pastures enhance nutrition for the grazing animals."
Paine planted 10 species in a pasture on her own farm. She said it is always thick and dense, recovers faster after grazing and is drought tolerant.
The amount of grass left in a pasture, after it is grazed, is important in this system. Grass can recover after grazing by using the remaining leaves to restart photosynthesis; or, it can draw from carbohydrate reserves in the roots and stem bases to make new leaves.
"Leaving more residual will help reduce the length of the rest period and increase overall pasture productivity," Paine said.
The one thing these two grazing systems have in common is a fence. Electric and poly wire fences are used to subdivide pastures into smaller paddocks for rotational grazing. Patch burn grazing does away with interior fencing and uses fire to control the movement of grazing cattle.
Brent Jamison, Missouri Department of Conservation, said patch burn grazing reduces the need for fencing and labor. The Missouri Department of Conservation conducted a study of patch burning at three sites in Missouri.
Basically, this system involves burning a different portion of a pasture every year. Theoretically, the cattle are attracted to the lush new growth in the burned area, while at the same time leaving the rest of the pasture alone. The burned area shifts from year to year. The location of the next burn is determined by the amount of fuel available for the fire.
In the three-year study done by Missouri Department of Conservation they found that cattle spent two-thirds of their time in the burned section. How much cattle spill over into the unburned section depends on stocking rates.
Jamison said this system is less effective on smaller acreages, but he has applied it to pastures as small as 60 acres in size.
Conservationists favor this system because it is better for grassland birds. According to Jamison grassland birds need a wide variety of plant heights and densities, ranging from bare ground to tall grass. This can be accomplished with patch burn grazing.
New Zealand style
New Zealand style grazing is as intensive as patch burn grazing is simple.
Richard Crawford, Superintendent of the University of Missouri Southwest Research Center and several area grass-based dairy farmers traveled to New Zealand last year to see how they do management intensive grazing.
New Zealand grass farmers have developed the grazing wedge as a more accurate measurement of forage cover. The grazing wedge puts pasture cover measurement into an easy to understand graphic tool. They collect these measurements with a rising plate meter on every paddock every week.
"You can't manage what you can't measure," Crawford said.
Crawford said, data from the measurements are entered into a spreadsheet and sorted highest to lowest, then converted to a bar graph format to form the grazing wedge.
Crawford said using these tools, the New Zealand farmers turn cattle into a paddock when there is 2,750 pounds of dry matter per acre; cattle are moved when there is 1,000 pounds of dry matter per acre.
"One of the main uses of the grazing wedge is in identifying which paddock to graze next," Crawford said.
All of these grazing strategies share one element. They are rotational, in varying degrees. Time and grazing pressure vary according to the specific strategy.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.