Often I see people’s eyes glaze over and a sense of disconnect when talking about grazing plans — surely after caring for cattle all winter, we can just turn them out in the spring and go round them up in the fall.
Like most of agriculture now, the pressure for returns on a land base that is ever more costly, combined with a rising cost of living, means we have to do more grazing with less land. The obvious reasons for this are: to lower our cost per acre or per cow by grazing longer; or to increase our grazing units on the same land base to generate more income. To make a long story short, improving our grazing can improve our margin (profit or less loss). This may seem somewhat complicated but in reality, it can be summed up as a pretty simple two-step process.
We will tackle the second most important aspect of a grazing plan first; when to graze. If we start with a calendar year, it seems fairly obvious we need to wait until something is growing in order to graze it.
Forage needs to be accessible to the grazing animal. If we are thinking about grazing preserved forages such as standing corn or swath grazing, it means we needed to start planning last year. In terms of the current year it means we need to plan to graze grass that has at least some growth. It is also important if we think about perennial grasses to ensure we have enough leaf area that grazing doesn’t kill the plant outright.
For much of the Prairies, a mid-May target to start grazing new growth is somewhere in the grazing zone (give or take a month). This may vary with snow cover, age of the stand, carryover grass, moisture levels and spring temperatures.
Ideally we will graze green, growing plants at around the four-leaf stage for most of the growing season. This differs from crop production where we are trying to get plants all the way to senescence (seed set) to capture energy in the grain — that’s not the optimal growth point for ruminant nutrition.
The first most important step of a grazing plan is managing to leave some forages not grazed.
Based on conversations and the power of observation, I strongly believe not grazing is by far much harder than grazing. It is relatively easy to find pastures where the plants are in survival mode, rather than thriving mode. Turning cows into a pasture with no cross fencing and no paddocks in May and then picking them up in September leads to plants being overgrazed. Plants that are starting to recover from grazing are green and juicy and get snapped up quickly. Plants that get missed on the first trip around the pasture get stemmy and dry, and drop down on the list of “good eats” for a grazing animal. Removing grazing (not grazing) in order to let those little succulent plants to recover and become big succulent plants is key to increasing productivity and performance of a pasture.
We can actually graze any plant as long and as hard as we want with two provisos. One, that we don’t outright kill the plant and two, that we leave enough time for the plant to replenish itself. Growth conditions affect how quickly plants recover.
In our northern climate we generally experience the most rapid growth in June when we have both moisture and peak daylight hours. This means we can return to a grazed area more quickly than later in the grazing season. This will vary somewhat by forage species, but it is a pretty good rule of thumb. As an extreme example, some producers graze a lot of pastures in December/January and plant recovery doesn’t start until April/May.
Let’s think through a couple of examples of why this could be. Plants convert sunlight to sugar and protein by absorbing sunlight through their leaves and photosynthesizing. Each leaf provides area for the sun to hit and drive this process. Fewer leaves means less sunlight captured and leads to lower production.
If we have legumes in our pastures, fewer leaves means less nitrogen fixation as well. Further we can add some other factors such as leaves and litter covering the soil surface and preserving moisture, preventing erosion and driving productivity. From an animal perspective we could also consider that most economically important parasites live their life cycle in the bottom four inches of the plant canopy. Grazing to the ground equates to higher parasite loads in our livestock and continual grazing ensures that the parasite can complete its life cycle and remain or expand its tenure in the pasture.
Based on the price of land and returns in the cattle industry, pastures should not just be a five-month daycare centre for our cows. If we think about pasture as a real, economically important solar-capturing crop the way we do with wheat, corn or canola, it becomes apparent that a grazing plan and increased productivity can be pathways to profit. The concept of when to graze and more importantly when not to graze can drive production and reduce costs by allowing plants to do what they do best and that is to grow.
Step 3 of a 2-step plan
Step 3 of the two-step grazing plan could be titled, “How To Not Graze,” as this by far seems to be the biggest challenge facing pastures in Western Canada and perhaps globally. In order for grazing to be successful, we first have to grow forage, and in order to do this to the maximum possible level, we need to provide some growing room for those forages.
Unlike many other parts of agriculture the technology to accomplish this goal is not necessarily costly or extremely technical.
If a farm had only one pasture and grazed it from May to October, every plant could be grazed likely every day of the growing season. If we split the pasture in half and put all of the cows on one side from May to July, and the other side from August to October, we have still put the same cows on the same pasture for the same length of time. The difference is that each half of the pasture received three months of free growing time without being grazed. If we are worried about all cows only having access to half the pasture, remember it is only for half as long as well. We haven’t taken any more days than before from that pasture, but we have increased its free growth period.
If we were to split the pasture once more into four parts, we could accomplish the same thing, however now each part of the pasture can have 3.4 of the grazing season under “free growth” and so on.
I am sure some readers are thinking, “This is where he says we need to electric-fence everything and move cows every day,” but that may not be the solution for a lot of land bases. The key is to think in terms of plant growth and how we can allow plants in a grazed area to recover before they are grazed again.
In some cases, this may involve electric fencing (I confess we use a lot of this technology), but in other operations it can look like moving cows up the mountain in the spring and then bringing them downhill in the fall, or combining all of the small summer groups into one large herd that is rotated through the property. Other tools can include moving mineral or water sources around, employing herders or even using tactical fencing. We use all of these tools at home depending upon season and terrain.
Tactical fencing is the process of establishing short fences or gates (sometimes as little as eight to 10 feet) across easy travel paths to control livestock flow. This can allow concentration of livestock into a grazing area and prevent them from returning once they are moved off. Tactical fencing can be particularly valuable in areas of challenging terrain with difficult access. Cows are generally lazy and like to hang around water and green grass, without climbing hills. Simply pushing cows into an area and blocking off easy return routes can greatly enhance grazing patterns. An example of this could be pushing cattle across a bridge and then blocking access so they can’t cross back over that same bridge.
When we consider plant recovery, season of grazing can be another tool. For example, a piece of ground may be grazed in the spring when plants are growing rapidly at which point animals may have to be removed fairly quickly in order to allow for plant recovery. In early spring plants will tend to recover rapidly. It is possible the same area can be grazed again later in the year.
It is also possible, if allowed to create a stockpiled forage source, that same piece of ground can be grazed over a much longer period in the late fall or winter when the plants are not growing, without damaging the plants.
Remember the definition of overgrazing is grazing a plant before it has recovered from the previous grazing event. When plants are growing slowly they start recovery more slowly so we can lengthen the grazing period. This is particularly useful in times of drought, when we can slow our pasture rotations (assuming enough forage is available for the livestock base). By slowing down on the pieces we are grazing, we give the pieces we are not grazing a longer recovery time, which they require when growth is limited (in the case of drought limited by moisture).
Snow as infrastructure
One particularly useful piece of infrastructure (although it can be unreliable) to ensure even grazing in bigger pastures is the use of snow. An even snowcover will cause animals to cover the entire landscape and will prevent them from returning to previously grazed areas or concentrating their grazing around a water source.
When cattle obtain some water with each mouthful of forage, they do not often seek additional water sources. Additionally, if there is no new succulent green growth (for example in January) and the forage is shortened by grazing, the cows do not have an incentive to come back and take another bite of an already-grazed plant and they will graze much more evenly over the landscape. The challenge with these approaches can be forage quality and ensuring that the cattle can eat enough of a potentially poor-quality forage to meet their nutritional needs.
Finally, the most important tip I can offer on pasture recovery and not grazing is to shut gates. Many farms and ranches have enough paddocks to, if not eliminate, greatly reduce overgrazing of plants. Leaving gates open once livestock are moved to the next pasture is an open invitation to encourages them to leave the new pasture and return to the recovering pasture with its small succulent nutrient-dense plants. If the goal is to improve pasture productivity, then once grazing animals are removed, they need to be kept off until recovery has happened. This can readily be accomplished by closing gates.
Over the years I have worked with a lot of producers and stolen a lot of ideas for our own place and I have learned that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but in trying to gain a better return on investment forage management is a key profitability driver for most cattle operations. Hopefully you have some time to do some pasture planning before the grass starts to grow.