Step 3 of the two-step grazing plan could also be titled, “How To Not Graze,” as this by far seems to be the biggest challenge facing pastures in Western Canada and perhaps around the world.
In order for grazing to be successful, we first have to grow forage, and in order to do this to the maximum possible, we need to provide some growing room for that forage. Unlike in many other parts of agriculture, the technology to accomplish this is neither necessarily costly nor extremely technical.
If a farm had only one pasture and grazed it from May to October, every plant could be grazed any and 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 number of cows on the same pasture for the same length of time, with the difference that each half of the pasture received three months of free growing time without having the pressure of being grazed. If we are worried about all of our 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 three-quarters of the grazing season under “free growth” and so on.
Not all about fencing
At this point 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 be electric fence (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 to cross back over that same bridge.
Season of grazing
When we consider plant recovery, another tool can also be season of grazing. 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 to allow plant recovery. At this time of year, plants will tend to recover rapidly and it may be possible to graze the area again later in the year.
It is also possible that if allowed to create a stockpiled forage source, that same piece of ground could be grazed much longer 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).
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 snow cover 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.
Close the gates
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 encourage 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.