I saw a Shopping Channel commercial the other day for a product with the tagline “set it, and forget it.” This advertisement describes many of the grazing regimes in use today. It may seem a bit early in the year to be worrying about grass, however I have not run across many cow/calf operations where grass does not play a major role in the production system. With grass being the lifeblood of many operations, it is incumbent upon us as producers to protect and improve this resource. One key principle that can help up accomplish this goal is the definition of overgrazing or “grazing a plant before it has fully recovered from the previous grazing event”. If you were to cut your hayfields once a week all summer starting in May what would their productivity be? Applied to a grazing operation this simple principle can improve pasture, reduce costs and increase carrying capacity.
I appreciate that not every range scenario allows for complete control of animal movement and timing of grazing. A prototypical intensively managed grazing operation may not be possible on some large rangelands, however there is always room for improvements. One of the things they don’t teach in school is that the success of any program depends almost entirely on the attitude of the management, and actually has very little to do with weather, soil conditions or the forage resource. It is important to develop an understanding of the resource base, but attitude will drive this acquisition of knowledge far more quickly than any other factor.
Another important point is that the path to profitability is not always more production. Growing more grass does not always mean we should run more cows. As an example, it may be more profitable to graze existing cows longer to reduce winter feeding costs or to keep calves as grassers. Most farms and ranches are made from a unique mixture of resources however the benefits of intensively managed pastures can extend to more extensively managed pastures as well.
Most producers can benefit from buying and using an electric fencer. As a rule of thumb, you can never have a fencer that is “too good.” Whether plug in or battery powered, choose the size of fencer you think you need and then upsize at least one if you can. You will never be disappointed if you do and it provides flexibility for expanding a grazing system in the future. As well, a more powerful fencer can also be used to good effect in non traditional grazing seasons such as winter. Most people have favourite brands and suppliers however most of the major brands are quite good. A key value to look at is “Joules of Output” rather than miles of fence. This is more indicative of the power of the fencer than any “miles of fence” rating.
Look for fencers that you can have serviced locally or within the region. Those with an inclination for Ebay and a soldering iron can build their own solar fencers, but if you require a fencer for remote locations and are not comfortable with electrical systems, these major companies also provide a lot of good options. Many of these fencers come with fault finders or even remote controls that can turn the fencer on and off from any point in the fence.
What starts with the fencer, is completed with the grounding system. If you have never built electric fence you will probably find good ground rods seem expensive, however I am convinced that the grounding system is the largest point of failure in most fences and poor ground systems are responsible for more producers giving up on electric fence than any other factor.
Attitude is a key when learning to fence with electricity, as even the method for attaching wire to posts is slightly different than the traditional barbed wire most of us are used to. High tensile wire wraps should be short and close together, like the joints in a page wire fence. One good tip I have learned over time is to bend the end of the wire in an “L” shape and use this as a handle for twisting the wire tight.
There is a lot of good information available on the internet or from your fencing supplier. With experience and depending on terrain/ corners/gates, one person can build over half a mile of fence on a good summer day, including pounding the posts. Many producers do not even use gates in their systems, instead they employ solutions that simply lift the electric wire and let the cattle pass underneath.
While we are far from completing our grazing system(s) and are certainly still learning, I am comfortable using our farm as an example. In our own operation we have converted 20+ year old tame pasture that I would describe as a “tribute to pasture sage” into prime grazing using nothing more than a good fencer and electric wire. The capacity of one of our first experiments with tame grass includes a parcel of land that has gone from fewer than 50 AUM (AUM = the amount of forage required to support a 1000 pound cow for one month) to well in excess of 150 AUM. These additional forage resources on a small portion of our farm have provided the opportunity for our operation to run more cows, start grazing earlier, graze longer, and give our more extensively managed native pasture an extended growing season resulting in more production from that resource as well. In addition, our native pasture that goes untouched for an entire growing season is now used for winter grazing the cow herd, which has allowed us to greatly reduce our winter feeding costs.
Where does a producer get all the extra time to manage a grazing system? Again this is a question of attitude. Cattle are readily trained to an intensively managed grazing scenario and there are producers who can move several hundred head of cattle through their system in under 15 minutes. By checking cattle more regularly many health problems are averted, problems such as sires not breeding are more readily detected and production can be greatly enhanced with little cost. As well, a good forage base serves as excellent drought protection. Depending on the individual farm, every 15 minutes moving cattle in midsummer may eliminate an hour or more of winter chores.
Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from
Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected]or (780)853-9673. For additional
information visit www.ranchingsystems.com