Restoring vigour to tired pasture

This planned grazing system appears to be returning about $77 per acre

When 4-Clover Ranch, near Rocky Mountain House, Alta. came into existence in 1992, there was one particular pasture close to the farmyard that the previous owner was reluctant to show us. He called it sodbound and needing a good plowing.

I hesitated to follow his plowing advice as it had a good southerly slope and could be useful in late winter for the cows and calves to sprawl on escaping the muck in the farmyard. We were calving in February and March, and we, as well as the cows and calves, couldn’t wait to see some dry ground each spring reducing bedding needs and the need for scour boluses or electrolytes.

We decided to split the field in half in the summer of 1993 and only plowed the south side. The north side was to become “Cabin South,” a 11.3-acre paddock that now, 23 years later, has still never seen a plow and has become one of our best pastures.

Following our purchase of 4-Clover Ranch we read with great interest results from work done by Alberta Agriculture’s forage specialist Grant Lastiwka showing, if managed properly, overwintered stands of forages could sustain the nutritional needs of cows in their third trimester or in lactation. Cabin South therefore became an excellent test plot for what we called deferred or stockpiled feed, meaning it was grazed once in July and the re-growth was left for grazing the following April/May.

Several benefits

We enjoyed this change immensely. Not only did it reduce calf scours, but also the amount of processed/baled winter feed. And the cows eagerly grazed the stands of standing yellow and bleached feed in mid-April to early May pursuing the greening of the plants as spring approached.

Another observation was the amazing speed with which the plants responded after grazing. While we cross-fenced Cabin South with poly wire and step-in pigtail posts providing feed for a couple of days at a time, we found ourselves needing to back-fence the paddock as well to prevent the cows from grazing the fast emerging spring regrowth.

The previous owner had never used commercial fertilizer and the sod-bound paddock was primarily bluegrass, fescue, yarrow, dandelions and strawberry. Following just a year of resting the pasture from July to early May, the change in plant species was amazing. Smooth brome and the native American vetch popped up at the expense of the yarrow and the strawberry plants. Confining the cows and calves to a two- to three-day strip of feed also left the tales of good manure distribution. Soil fertility got a shot in the arm.

We practised this deferred grazing concept for about 14 years with amazing and steady improvements in production and biodiversity. In 2006, or 14 years later, Albert Kuipers from the Grey Wooded Forage Association looked at Cabin South and estimated that from mainly five species in 1993 there were now 23 species of grasses and forbs.

The American vetch and the smooth brome had spread across the entire paddock along with yellow peavine, alsike clover, red clover, white clover, orchard grass and alfalfa — all species showed increasing vigour. We did not seed the new species. They were there all along and their appearance was a natural occurrence once the grazing rest allowed them to compete against the less desirable species that dominated under the continuous grazing system.

Planned grazing system

After selling the cows and now just custom grazing someone else’s cattle each summer, we have moved more to a planned grazing concept where we move the cattle based on pasture health rather than the calendar. We typically run a quick “skim graze” in the spring, then a second grazing with a closer look at which pastures need a longer rest period between grazings and which one is best suited to stock pile feed on for early grazing the following season.

The optics were clear, much better stands, extended grazing season, and increased carrying capacity but we wanted to know some concrete figures so we could get a stronger sense of quantitative data rather than observations.

This quest for stronger quantitative analysis was helped when I found an app for my smartphone called AndMeasure (Android Measure) at the recommendation of one of my grazing friends in Australia. This free app allowed me to look at the pastures with the help of Google Maps and for the first time I was able to identify, by the slightly different colours, each of the 16 pastures on the home quarter and the 12 on the east quarter.

This led to a precise measurement of the paddocks by simply zooming in on the aerial Google Maps photo with the app, tracing the perimeters and the app calculating the acres to a very accurate one decimal point.

Knowing the acres made it possible to create a simple spreadsheet with formulas calculating Animal Unit Days of grazing per acre. The moderate size cows were assessed 1.3 AUs each. We also created a seasonal tally of total grazing days. For the first time we were able to see which paddock had the best performance. We could also document improvements in grazing days between years. It became clearer which paddock needed greater rest.

The spreadsheet formulas also calculated grazing fees so we can see the monetary performance of each paddock and the annual return per acre.

Learning curve

The planned grazing concept put us on a huge learning curve. The carrying capacity has increased steadily since 1992 without the use of commercial fertilizer and the answer, we believe, is in much improved nutrient cycling.

The discovery of mycorrhizal fungi, an important soil microbe with a symbiotic relationship with plant roots benefiting nutrient cycling, has been a rewarding “Ah-ha moment” this past summer. It is a less talked-about phenomenon but likely one to see more coverage in the future as we are not alone in striving for pasture longevity, low cost production and profit.

As we compare 2014 and 2015, which had extreme variance in rainfall, we think it is reasonable to graze about 90 AU days/acre on an ongoing basis. This equates to a return of $77/acre virtually without input costs other than man-hours for moving the cattle and checking water systems, which is a far better return compared to cropping- or haying-lease options.

Even though the 2015 spring started out very dry, we allowed more cattle on the pasture due to feed shortages on the farm where they came from. We did end up with some decent rains in midsummer. Having just calculated the 2015 figures we ended up with just 419 Animal Unit Days of grazing per acre or 10,930 AUDs/acre on the home quarter from 68 cow-calf pairs and three bulls for 18 weeks of grazing. There is a great correlation between drought resilience and planned grazing and it is rewarding to experience it.

Having slipped away from a Canadian winter yet again, I am writing this article from our farm, Alcheringa Pastoral, Victoria, Australia, where we are grazing steers. Here we are mimicking the 4-Clover Ranch grazing program with a quick skim graze. Australia’s summer heat and lack of rain is soon to usher in the dormant part of the growing season. It is a different kettle of fish to be shared in another article.

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