Grazing challenges in a dry environment

Dung scores and gut fill are important indicators of how cattle are doing

When I arrived back in Australia in late October last year, Helen had organized the purchase of some steers and they were happily grazing on our farm and had adjusted well to the electric fence, skim grazing over the new seeding I had seeded earlier in May. October is springtime and the growth was pretty phenomenal despite a very dry winter with much below-average rains for this part of Victoria in the southeast corner of Australia.

This was soon to end as El Nino manifested itself with a vengeance, basically shutting off the taps as summer arrived with just teasing rains ever since. Now in early March, with autumn around the corner, cooler days and less evaporation is slowly taking over. This change has already awakened the pasture and a tinge of green is noticed, albeit it’s colour rather than an abundance of new feed. We have had less than two inches of rain over the last five months and what was green and lush became yellow, dry feed very quickly.

We grazed some heifers a year ago and while it was my first grazing season in Australia I thought some of our grazing principles from 4 Clover Ranch at Rocky Moutain House, Alberta could work here as well. It couldn’t be further from the truth as it is just so different. On 4 Clover Ranch we race against time to get the cattle through the paddocks in June and July while the forage grows like gangbusters with plans to also stockpile forage for late fall.

Here in Australia the spring growth is perhaps equally fast but then everything comes to an abrupt stop as summer arrives with the dryness and high 30s, low 40s temperatures set in. Summer grazing is really almost like winter grazing in Alberta; you’re dealing with feed that is declining in nutritional value due to the heat and lack of rain. You contemplate the choices available to get through without compromising the performance of the cattle until better feed becomes available.

After skim grazing some new seeding for a couple of months, we began grazing through a very nice stand of phalaris that we had seeded back in 2014. Phalaris is a very popular forage related to reed canary grass. Its low alkaloid varieties are common in Alberta. A new Holdfast phalaris GT (grazing tolerant) has been developed down here that is better suited for grazing with a higher palatability.

Helen, with Tess and steers in the background on a pasture of Holdfast phalaris GT (grazing tolerance), a variety of reed canary grass more suitable for grazing.

Helen, with Tess and steers in the background on a pasture of Holdfast phalaris GT (grazing tolerance), a variety of reed canary grass more suitable for grazing.
photo: Kim Nielsen

Dung scores

We moved the cattle weekly using single lines of poly wire and step-in posts. At first the pasture utilization was decent but we quickly noticed the manure changing from the consistency of pudding to biscuit-like texture, indicating an increase in the feed fibre and reduced rumen function. This is par for the course. Nothing unusual, we just needed to find ways to cope.

We were happy with “dry feed blocks” used last year and placed these in the pasture as a free choice supplement. The idea was that the 30 per cent protein and mineral/vitamin blocks would enhance the rumen flora to help digest the dry feed. It worked well and we could see an immediate change in the manure or better dung score. It allowed for better utilization of the standing feed without compromising weight gains.

As we pushed for the last little bit of cleanup of the pasture before moving the livestock, we switched to looking at the cattle’s gut fill. As a visual indicator, a triangle area on the left side of the animal will appear sunken between the hip bone and the ribs, if insufficient feed intake or if there is a mismatch between the rumen flora and the feed available. We used a trigger point of about 10 per cent of the animals exhibiting the triangle to tell us its time to move them on.

So looking at dung scores and gut fill has become our objective when we check the cattle. But we also wish to have enough animal impact on the material that’s ungrazed to trample it in, making good contact with the soil for decomposition.

Grazing in a dry environment has its challenges. We are enjoying it as much as we enjoy grazing on 4-Clover Ranch up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta; just need to accept some calibration requirements to our grazing method between two distinctly different farms.

Kim Juul Nielsen provides an Australian perspective from time to time. He grows grass during the Australian summer at Alcheringa Pastoral in the South West of the state of Victoria, Australia and during the Canadian summer up on 4-Clover Ranch, Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. He can be reached at [email protected]

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