Cows are very poor managers of grass. So if all you are doing is opening the gate and turning them out to graze for the summer, they won’t make the best use of land resources and achieve the productivity derived from a pre-planned grazing system, says Blain Hjertaas.
Hjertaas, a holistic management instructor from Redvers, Sask., spoke about planned grazing at a two-day workshop hosted by Ducks Unlimited Canada in association with Manitoba Grazing Clubs in Minnedosa, Man. earlier this year.
Attendees learned how to plot a grazing plan and calculate the number and size of paddocks needed to cover the season, the carrying capacity of the paddocks, and the length of time each can be grazed and still allow sufficient time for the grass to recover before returning to graze it again.
“The key to success is to protect your recovery time,” says Hjertaas. “That means from the time grass is eaten off you have to make sure there is nothing else grazing that pasture until that grass is back to maturity.” That’s where the planning comes in, Hjertaas says. “You have to move the cattle or the sheep or whatever it is you are grazing in such a way that whatever recovery time needed for the grass is achieved.”
Hjertaas says that could be 50 days or 90 days depending on the time of year. With planned grazing producers need a plan that ensures livestock aren’t returned to that paddock for that recovery period.
It’s a fairly simple concept once people get their heads around it, says Hjertaas, but creativity is needed to design a planned grazing system that will work on each farm. Participants at his workshops bring an aerial map of their farm and Hjertaas helps them to figure out how to divide pastures and calculate how to move the cattle through the system.
He says it’s useful for a producer to start with an idea of the average forage production of pastures over the last couple of years. With that information it is a simple mathematical calculation to figure how many days the herd can spend in each area based on the number of animals, the land available, and an estimate of how much grass each animal eats per day. Once the calculations are done the producer can plot the moves to maximize the grass productivity and pasture recovery time.
Hjertaas says it’s important for producers to remember no plan is set in stone and flexibility is needed to allow for what actually happens in any given year.
“At first it’s theoretical because we don’t know what is actually going to be out there,” he says. “But what is important is to protect the recovery period.” Depending on actual growing conditions cattle may stay for a longer or shorter period in each pasture before being moved. “You adjust as you go,” he says.
TEST THE SYSTEM
Another key aspect of the plan is availability of water. Hjertaas always encourages producers to try their system for a few years using temporary fences and portable water sources to make sure it works before they invest in any major or more permanent infrastructure.
“Planning it is really cheap,” he says. “You can play around with paper and it doesn’t cost much but time. Once you start taking a backhoe or a water drill out there then it becomes quite expensive.”
Planned grazing isn’t just about the land and the animals. It’s also about planning for the people running the system.
“When you start your grazing plan put in all your production events like when you turn bulls out and take them in,” says Adele Popp, a workshop attendee from Erickson, Man. “But you also include life events in the plan as well. That includes plans for a holiday or family wedding or any other event that could affect the dates of your grazing plan.”
Popp attended a planned grazing seminar several years ago, which introduced her to the idea of the grazing chart — a component of planned grazing that allows producers to fill in actual production numbers as the season progresses to compare with the projected production figures from the grazing plan.
“That’s why I went to Blain’s workshop because I had never actually completed a grazing chart and we spent a whole day working on it,” she says. “I have been collecting grazing data for years but I have never done anything with it. Now that I know how to do the grazing chart I can plug in those years of data and move forward from there. Every year you make changes but when you actually have the numbers it’s proof of what is or isn’t working and it helps you to tweak the system better.”
Popp says she has increased forage and beef production tremendously since adopting planned grazing, but there is always more to learn and being able to learn about the experiences of other producers at workshops is always valuable in helping to refine the system a little bit more.
Planned grazing isn’t a quick fix. It’s a system that encourages abused land to slowly heal itself. As the land gets healthier it captures more solar energy and soil microorganisms begin to better cycle nutrients and minerals such as zinc, copper and boron, making the grass more nutritious and animals healthier. As soil organic matter increases, productivity and carrying capacity also go up. It is common for producers to be able to double their carrying capacity after a few years of planned grazing, which proponents say is a good economic incentive to get out the paper and pencil. †