We do some apparently strange things on our operation. We are short on cropland and long on native rangeland in our resource mix, so we run smaller cows and calve later than many of our neighbours. We also try to extend our grazing season, particularly the grass component, for as long as is humanly or cowly possible. This creates some management considerations many other operations may not have, and it means I get to do a lot of riding through November, December and often into January.
The other day a neighbour made a comment about grazing in the winter, to the effect that “you have to have grass to do that!” This is not the first time I have heard this comment, but it always gives me pause. I agree with the sentiment completely. It is definitely not possible to extend the grazing season if there is nothing to graze, but the growing of grass is not the extreme secret that some folks seem to think it is. I appreciate there are a lot of variables that go into plant growth, but it is interesting to me that some fencelines that have the same rainfall, sunlight and frost-free growing degree days can have such markedly different levels of grass growth on either side of the fence.
You need to plan for it
Grass comes from a plan. Grass may be one of the most important food crops in the world. We often do not think about it, but as a human race we have become incredibly good at growing grass. Wheat and rice are both very important grasses to the human race, not to mention corn. We often don’t think of these types of crops as being grass, but as a simplified system they provide some useful reflections for how to grow grass in a pasture setting.
1. Realize grass is the crop and it has the same goal as I do
In terms of grazing livestock or planting a wheat crop, it is good to know that the goal of the crop and the cropper are compatible. The grass wants to grow and I want it to grow. Sometimes we can become cow-centric in our approach and miss looking at the grass, which is the actual crop we are growing. Cattle are just the way we harvest that crop. If you doubt cows are the harvester and not the crop, note in many cases we can also harvest grass with a set of haying equipment.
2. Growth takes nutrition
It doesn’t matter what it is, grass or a teenager, nutrition is required for growth. In a monoculture crop such as wheat, we will often add inorganic nutrients in the form of fertilizer. This is an option for pastures as well. However we also have another option of adding nitrogen fixers into the pasture complex. This includes things such as clover, alfalfa, vetches and other types of nitrogen-fixing plants. Every time we add another species to our pasture mix, it increases the complexity, durability and flexibility of our pasture, but it also adds another layer to the management of that pasture. Imagine trying to manage your wheat crop if you seeded every other row to canola, or had wheat every third row, with peas and canola spread through the remaining rows.
Adequate rest (non-grazing periods during the growing season) is by far the most important and most neglected part of growing grass. Agronomically, water is the most limiting nutrient in most of Western Canada, but in terms of pasture growth lack of rest is by far the biggest limitation on production that I see in my travels. Back to our wheat analogy — it is unlikely that you will see your grain-farming neighbour out swathing his six-inch high, recently germinated wheat crop. It is also unlikely you will see him swathing it again a week or a month later. In fact, if that crop were swathed weekly all summer, we would have no expectation it would ever produce a 70-bushel crop of wheat. Yet, this is exactly what we are expecting of a pasture when we put a few animals on a lot of acres and let them harvest it repeatedly over an entire growing season. In order for grass to grow and produce leaves for photosynthesis, we have to give it a break, time to recover and rejuvenate itself.
There is a lot more to growing quality and abundant pastures than just these three points, but they are a good start to figuring out a plan. I don’t think too many grain producers start planting anymore without a soil test, budget and something of a plan for how they are going to grow and market that crop. Pastures should be no different. We are extremely fortunate in our resource base at home, but we also plan around that resource base so we have grass and can maintain grazing for a long time. In the next couple of articles, we will talk a bit about what the elements of a grazing plan and the practical application of that plan might look like.