Category: Stockmanship

Comparing Rotational and Continuous Grazing – A Time Lapse Video

By   /  August 12, 2019  /

Seeing how two pastures function side by side under different management is one good way to consider what kind of management we’d like to implement. That’s why I like this video from the Natural Resources Conservation Service staff in Clark, South Dakota. They set up a camera on a fence line and took time lapse photos from May to December of 2018 to see how the vegetation responded to continuous grazing (on the right side of the fence) and rotational grazing on the right. They wanted to be able to show folks the difference, not just in the amount of forage produced, but also what happens through the winter.

View the Video

Twelve Steps to Amazing Grazing – Part 1

By   /  May 13, 2019  /

This article comes to us from Matt Poore and Johnny Rogers. Amazing Grazing, in addition to being something we all aspire to, is state-wide, pasture-based livestock educational initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, coordinated by Matt and Johnny coordinate.

These steps aren’t just 1-2-3 and you’re done. We’ve all started down this road, and these are some ideas to help us keep going.

One day last winter as we drove to Roanoke  for the American Forage and Grasslands Council Annual Conference we talked at length about why more people don’t adopt better grazing management techniques. We realized it might be because we have been practicing Adaptive Grazing Management for so long we forget how we got started.  Advanced graziers sometimes turn off novices because what seems obvious to the experienced is a brand new concept to folks just getting started.  It is clear, however, that more and more farmers are interested in starting the pursuit of “Amazing Grazing”.  We get a lot of questions about how to get from a traditionally managed farm to a place where you can see “Amazing Grazing” in action. It doesn’t happen quickly, but changing your management approach can turn a system around and begin the soil health building process.  Here is a twelve step plan that can help you along the journey.

Step 1.  Decide you are ready to become a critical thinker and to manage your farm using ecological principles.

Most of us have grown up with a production system that uses a lot of hay and other purchased feeds, is based on continuous or very lax rotational grazing, and that has a focus on a single part of the system, the animal.  We have been taught a lot about nutrition, reproduction and genetics, as well as showing animals, but relatively little about managing the complex and dynamic pasture ecosystem. When we get in a drought we hold onto the animals, buy more hay, and allow the pastures to get overgrazed.

The truth is that if you spend a lot of time feeding hay in winter, making hay in summer, and worrying about running out of grass during droughts, there is a better way.  Your farm is an ecosystem that includes you, the animals, the forages, the soil, and the water cycle and a million other connections.  Once you see it as one system, you have a chance to observe and then guide the system in a direction that benefits your production and personal goals.

Do you want to shorten the hay feeding season, grow more forage with less inputs, and improve your lifestyle?  All that is possible, but Adaptive Grazing Management can only work if you admit you don’t understand your system but are willing to spend the time and energy trying to figure it out.  The truth is no one really understands these systems, but there are many of us that have decided to devote a lifetime to observing all parts of the system, making management decisions, critically evaluating results, and adapting our management to improve those outcomes.

One key thing to be aware of is that Adaptive Grazing Management means you will spend more time on your feet and less time on equipment.  While new remote sensing technologies are being developed, there is no substitute for walking pasture, feeling it under your feet, and spending time putting up polywire and closely observing your cows. The exercise you get from this activity is well balanced and low impact, and can really improve your health and well-being.

Step 2.  Surround yourself with like-minded graziers.

After you decide to embark on this endless journey to Amazing Grazing, you need to have a support network. We need to keep our current friends, but understand there will be peer pressure to go back to the old ways of doing things.  Obviously it is mentally easier to turn on a tractor, spear a bale of hay and deliver it to a hay ring, than to have cows strip grazing behind a single strand of polywire. You may become known among your peers as “that loco guy that spends all winter moving that silly little string”.

The best way to succeed is to make a new peer group that has similar goals to your own. Finding them is easy; just attend an Amazing Grazing Workshop or other educational event and engage the more experienced participants with questions. Experienced Adaptive Graziers are very likely to attend these educational events and you will find them amazingly open with sharing their ideas and practices.

Another issue with the way many of us were raised is that we were always in a competitive environment.  Competition can be a good thing as long as we have the correct target in mind. Learning from each other about practices that improve our land and profit margins should be our focus instead of bragging about weaning weights at the coffee shop.

Adaptive graziers tend to be open and sharing, and approach life more as a collaborative journey than as a competitive one. As you develop and grow your skills you will see opportunities to host educational demonstrations and workshops, so take advantage of those opportunities to lead and expand your network.

Step 3.  Do a preliminary analysis of your system resources.

Start with aerial maps of your place. You can get these off the web or from your FSA or NRCS office. Evaluate the acreage in each pasture and evaluate pasture condition. The best way to evaluate your forage stand and pasture condition is to do a “point step” analysis which involves randomly walking the pasture, periodically writing down the species of plant you are stepping on (or bare ground), and writing down a preliminary condition score from 1 to 5 (1 = bare with almost no productive forage and 5 = as good as it gets with a diversity of strong and desirable forages and no bare ground). Do this on at least 100 points and get the average for the pasture.

Were you able to identify all the major desirable and undesirable species? If not then reviewing the common weeds and pasture plants would be advised. (Here are some resources to help you with plant ID.) Was it easy for you to call out a condition score?  If not then take time to learn more about this topic. Condition scoring can be a complex subject, but also it is a simple concept you can learn to monitor continuously once you really know your pastures.

Take soil samples from each pasture to determine the pH and soil nutrient levels. Once you are practicing more intensive forms of Adaptive Grazing Management many of the manure and urine nutrients will cycle and reduce your need for fertilizer, but, if you start with low pH or low nutrient levels, you will need to correct them to get the system working. From this systematic approach you can start to better understand your pastures, what the balance of desirable and undesirable species is, identify weak and strong spots, and which pastures will give a bigger response to improved management or complete renovation.

Step 4.  Upgrade your electric fences and electric fencing skills. 

This is a critical step because Adaptive Grazing Management requires animals that are well trained to temporary fencing. You’ll need high power levels and good fence trouble shooting skills to make that happen. With traditional management and multi-wire perimeter fences, having some power on the fence some of the time may have worked, but it will not work with Adaptive Grazing Management. You need to understand the theory of how electric fence works, and how to use a fault finder to find shorts and keep power on the fence high. Bluntly, if you don’t maintain power on electric fence, animals will not respect temporary fence and you will likely abandon the journey to Amazing Grazing. (Here are all the OP articles on electric fencing. We’ll be adding more in coming issues!)

Step 5.  Train your animals to respect a single strand of wire.

It is critical that your animals have a high level of respect for temporary electric fence.  Electric fence is only a mental barrier, and that is played out to the extreme with a single strand of polywire.  However, once animals are well trained to it, it opens up a whole new world based on “The Power of One Wire“.  Those benefits include improved forage management, easier movement and gathering of animals, ability to flexibly exclude sensitive areas within pasture, and to respond to perimeter fence damage resulting from natural disasters.

To train the animals, set up a single strand of polywire on tread-in posts about 18 inches inside of a pen or a small pasture. It is probably better to use a small pasture because it is more the setting where the animals will first encounter polywire cross fences. The key to the training period is that there is plenty of power on the wire. We would recommend a minimum of 5 kilovolts. You might do some feeding under the wire so animals are close to it, and you also might use the trick of attaching a strip of aluminum foil with peanut butter on it to the wire to attract deer and teach them what polywire is too. It will take a few weeks for this preliminary training period, and then the training goes to the next level with a single strand cross fence.

This is Part 2 by Matt Poore and Johnny Rogers. Here’s Part 1 if you missed it.

These steps aren’t just 1-2-3 and you’re done. We’ve all started down this road, and these are some ideas to help us keep going.

Step 6.  Start cutting individual pastures in half with polywire.

The place to start with Adaptive Grazing Management is to divide each permanent pasture in half, with cattle entering the half with the water source whenever you rotate pastures. This change alone will lead to being able to double your stocking density and improvements in your system. We recommend using some rigid fiberglass or plastic posts on the ends (and potentially within the line) in these initial temporary divisions because animals, especially wildlife, will still be in the training process. Setting it up so it will not be easily torn down is good to start with, and as you repeat the process again and again you will learn how to make it stronger and more resilient to tear down using only tread in posts. Now you will also start to develop your skills at looking at a grazed sward and determining when to take down the division fence.  An average stop grazing height of 2-4 inches in all systems is not a bad rule of thumb, a little on the shorter side for bermudagrass-based systems (2-3 inches) than for fescue-based systems (3-4 inches).

Step 7.  Stockpile forage in autumn and strip-graze during the winter followed by dispersed hay feeding.

In early summer determine one or more pastures to stockpile for late fall or winter grazing. Here in North Carolina, this might be a mostly fescue field in many areas but could also be a bermudagrass field. Either way, manage the pastures so that the stand is in good shape (either grazed or clipped), and then add about 50 lbs of nitrogen on about September 1, and allow it to grow undisturbed until November 1 for bermudagrass or January 1 for tall fescue. If you’re in other parts of the country check with your local Natural Resources Conservation Serviceor Conservation District office, or with an extension professional to find out what works best for you.

When you start grazing, set up an initial grazing strip that includes the water source and an expected 2 to 3 days of grass.  Once the forage has been consumed you will need to move the fence to allocate enough grass to feed your cattle for the next 1 to 3 day grazing period. Moving cattle daily has many advantages but cannot be achieved in all situations. However, moving fence every three days is attainable and still gives great forage utilization. This is a great learning opportunity for you and your animals, and it seems doing some daily moves really helps you develop the skills of forage allocation. Try moving your cattle daily when you can (i.e. weekends) and resume the every third day move during the week.

Calculate the forage needs of your cows and determine an estimate of how much forage is available to target the length of your moves.  Of course you need to adapt the size of the offering as you go, but having an idea how many acres should be needed each day will give you a good starting point and a way to calculate a feed budget. Learning how to step off the length and width of your paddock will help you calculate the land area and forage allocation.  After you finish grazing all the stockpiled pastures start unrolling hay or rotating hay rings in areas that can benefit from animal impact and increased nutrients.

Step 8.  Start strip grazing with all pasture movements during the growing season.

Once you are into spring, continue to use the strip grazing technique, flip flopping two reels so that cows are always on a fresh strip, and keep another 1 to 3 day strip set up ahead of them.  Having the next strip set up will help you save time and offer added security in case your polywire is torn down by wildlife or your cattle As long as you are not in an individual pasture more than 10-14 days there is no need to set up a back fence to keep animals off the grazed areas..  If you see animals grazing in the area they already grazed (back-grazing) then you need to make your strips wider as they will always prefer to graze in the fresh strip if there is adequate forage there.  This practice that we call modified strip grazing will become your key grazing tool and you will use it as long as you are a grazier.  The flexibility in the size of strip you offer allows you to flex with your schedule, and you can also set up multiple strips ahead of time if you have to depend on a helper to periodically move your animals. It also allows you to impact animal performance by varying the stop grazing height.  In general the higher the stop grazing height the higher animal performance but the lower grazing utilization efficiency.  The reverse is true….at lower stop grazing height performance will be lower but utilization efficiency can be high.  On general terms use a higher stop grazing height with growing cattle or thin cows and a shorter stop grazing height with brood cows in good body condition.

Step 9.  Develop a comprehensive grazing plan acceptable to NRCS and other governmental agencies.

As you start to optimize the use of your current infrastructure you will see opportunities to improve by adding additional perimeter fencing, watering points, and permanent cross fencing. To guide these efforts you need a comprehensive forage and grazing plan that includes existing and needed infrastructure, that determines an animal/forage balance, and that will project infrastructure development to guide your financial planning and application for cost-share funds. There are many opportunities for both infrastructure development contracts, and also management-based contracts for practices such as Prescribed Grazing. This comprehensive plan will need to be facilitated by a trained planner that can help make sure the plan is acceptable to all agencies involved, and also will be a key for you to keep on a long-term plan for your system.

Step 10.  Implement additional upgrades to infrastructure.

As highlighted in your comprehensive plan, start to improve your watering system, upgrade perimeter fencing and add cross-fencing.  This infrastructure improvement usually needs to be prioritized and done in stages so that you make major improvements in system function with each project, and so you have time to continue your good management while completing the projects in a timely manner.  Full implementation of the comprehensive plan will take many years or even decades, and the plan must be revisited and updated as you go through time.

Step 11.  Continue to refine your skills, be persistent and tenacious.

It takes 5 to 10 years to really see the benefits of Adaptive Grazing Management.  The road to “Amazing Grazing” is challenging because you are dealing with a very dynamic system that is upset by many environmental factors.  With time your system will become more resilient to drought and flood, as a result of improved soil health, but that happens gradually and you have to be patient.  When the first drought hits, realize that the most critical principle in Adaptive Grazing Management is to avoid overgrazing at all costs.  When pastures are all down to the stop grazing height, pull cattle into a sacrifice area and feed hay.  Don’t get discouraged and abandon what you have started!  As soon as the rain comes you will be amazed at what you see compared to your neighbors that continued to graze all pastures through the drought.

Also, understand that it is not uncommon for temporary fence to be torn down when you are early in the game.  Don’t get frustrated and quit….observe, learn and adapt.  Was it low power, lack of training, or a physical failure (corner failed?) that led to the malfunction?  As your skills develop  your system failures in the temporary fence will become rare events, but they can still happen even in the best of systems.

Step 12.  Observe your system and continually improve your management skills.

One thing we love about Adaptive Grazing Management is that we continue to be challenged to learn at a more rapid pace even after all these years.  We realize   that there is knowledge in every mistake  and from every curve ball that nature throws our way. But, no problem or failure is without opportunity. The road to Amazing Grazing is a journey without an end.  Once you have been practicing Adaptive Grazing Management for several years you will realize that you really don’t get to Amazing Grazing, but you can get close to it if you are tenacious.

Continue to attend educational events and as you mature in your understanding of your management, and share that with other producers.  Adaptive graziers with a positive collaborative attitude are a very positive role model in our industry.  Share your grazing excitement with young people, either your immediate family, or through other youth programs.  Teach Adaptive Grazing Management skills to the next generation when they are young so that it is not a new concept to them when they start making the management decisions.

We welcome you on the journey to Amazing Grazing!

There are many producers that have started using Adaptive Grazing Management and are on the journey. It works out to be an exciting and mindful life trying to figure out where we fit into this complex ecosystem.  No matter where you are on the twelve step plan, review the steps and make sure you are on track.  Whether you are at the steps where you are just trying to gain awareness, needing to improve your electric fence skills, learning how to take and interpret soil samples, or needing to develop a comprehensive grazing plan we hope you’ll keep on reading On Pasture and looking for educational opportunities that will serve you well.

Grazing Management

http://www.beefresearch.ca/research-topic.cfm/grazing-management-48

Effective grazing management on pastures not only ensures high forage yield, sustainability, animal health and productivity, all of which impact cost of production, it also benefits the pasture ecosystem.  Innovations in pasture management give producers greater control to support the environment (e.g. biodiversity) but also allow them to better use pasture resources for food production.

Pasture is a critical resource in the cattle industry. An effective management plan requires clear understanding of forage production, realistic production goals, effective grazing strategies and timely response to forage availability and environmental changes. Managing grazing lands so that they are productive and persist over time requires knowing when to graze certain species, if they can withstand multiple grazings/cuttings within a single year and how much recovery time is needed to prevent overgrazing (which is a matter of time not intensity)

Plant Growth

  • Plants go through three phases of growth that form an “S” shaped curve
  • Adjust grazing and rest periods to keep plants in Phase II
  • The timing of the growth curve for each forage species is unique and an important factor in determining proper season of use for grazing

Rest and Recovery

  • Overgrazing is a function of time; rest is key to prevent overgrazing
  • When plants are growing slowly the required recovery or rest period will need to be longer than when plants are growing rapidly

Stand Management

  • Plant diversity is important to maintain a productive pasture; if only one kind of plant exists, diversity is narrow, and production will be limited
  • Management of a forage stand relies upon the level of utilization that allows for maximum grazing of forage without damage or negative impact to the vegetation
  • A general guideline employs 50% utilization by weight (biomass) of the key available forage species in a stand

Developing a Grazing Plan

  • A grazing plan that matches animal numbers to predicted forage yields should be carried out before animal turnout
  • Conducting an inventory of resources is essential

Grazing Systems

  • Grazing systems will vary with the climate, plant species, soil types and livestock
  • Four basic principles of management apply:
    • balance the number of animals with available forage supply
    • obtain a uniform distribution of animals over the landscape
    • alternate periods of grazing and rest to manage and maintain the vegetation
    • use the kinds of livestock most suited to the forage supply and the objectives of management

Paddock Design

  • Paddock shape should be determined by the topography, soil type, and species differences to reduce problems with uneven grazing and varying recovery time
  • The size of individual paddocks should be determined by the projected herd size based on forage production potential and preferred stock density
  • Access to water impacts grazing patterns of livestock and understanding this will assist in managing forage utilization
Livestock Distribution
  • Ideal grazing distribution occurs when the entire pasture is grazed uniformly to an appropriate degree within a predetermined time frame
  • Livestock do not graze randomly and must be forced or enticed to seldom used areas
  • Salt and mineral should be placed away from water and used to distribute animals more uniformly

Grazing Legumes

  • Legumes as part of an annual grazing plan can help restore soil nitrogen, increase forage yields and extend pasture carrying capacity
  • Legume grazing requires increased management efforts to ensure optimal stand persistence and animal performance

Grazing Management Terminology and Calculations

  • Stocking rate is the number of animals on a pasture for a specified time period
  • Stock density is the number of animals in a particular area at any moment in time
  • Carrying capacity is the average number of animals that a pasture can support for a grazing season

The efficiency with which plants convert the sun’s energy into green leaves and the ability of animals to harvest and use energy from those leaves depends on the phase of growth of the plants. Plants go through three phases of growth that form an “S” shaped curve (Figure 1).

Phase I occurs in the spring following dormancy or after severe grazing where few leaves remain to intercept sunlight forcing plants to mobilize energy from the roots. The roots become smaller and weaker as energy is used to grow new leaves.

Phase II is the period of most rapid growth. When regrowth reaches one fourth to one third of the plant’s mature size, enough energy is captured through photosynthesis to support growth and begin replenishing the roots.

Phase III material is mature and nutrient content, palatability, and digestibility is relatively poor. Leaves become shaded, die and decompose. During this phase new leaf growth is offset by the death of older leaves.

Adjust grazing and rest periods to keep plants in Phase II. Do not graze plants so short that they enter phase I as regrowth is very slow.  Nor should plants be permitted to mature and enter phase III as shading and leaf senescence reduces photosynthesis. The harvest of energy is maximized by keeping plants in phase II.

Figure 1: The sigmoid (S) growth curve of  a typical forage stand indicates how yield, growth rates and rest periods change over the growing season. (Voisin 1988).

The timing of the growth curve for each forage species is unique and these growth characteristics are an important factor in determining proper season of use for grazing (Figure 2). For example, crested wheatgrass begins growth relatively early in the growing season while native grass species grow later in the season. Based on these characteristics, crested wheatgrass is best grazed early in the season with native rangelands better suited for use in the summer or fall. It is important to recognize that forage species may be grazed outside their optimal season of use however, the subsequent rest period must be extended to allow plants adequate time to recover.

Figure 2 – Average relative yield and period of growth of native grass and seeded pastures in Saskatchewan.

Overgrazing is a function of time and occurs when a plant is grazed (defoliated) before it has recovered from a previous grazing event. This occurs by either leaving grazing animals in a paddock too long or bringing them back too soon, before plants have had a chance to recover and regrow. Rest is key to prevent overgrazing and must occur when the plants are actively growing, not during dormancy.

The length of time that a plant needs to recover following grazing depends on several factors including the type of forage species, plant vigour, and the level of utilization (i.e., how much plant material has been removed). Recovery time also depends on the season or time of year which determines conditions such as daylength and temperature. Fertility and moisture also impact plant growth rates.

When plants are growing slowly, such as in late summer, the required recovery or rest period will need to be longer than when plants are growing rapidly. This relates to the “S” shaped growth curve discussed above. Understanding the phase of the growth curve, the corresponding rate of growth, and the timing of the growth period for each forage species, is critical to management decisions related to adequate rest and recovery periods.

Figure 3: the required recovery or rest period will need to be longer than when plants are growing rapidly

Determining the number of days of rest required is unfortunately, not a simple calculation. Rather, watching and evaluating how pastures regrow and recover will provide the best information. With experience will come the knowledge needed to determine when a pasture has recovered and is ready for grazing.  As a general rule of thumb a minimum recovery period is estimated to be at least 6 weeks.

Maintaining a pasture stand in good condition is critical to a successful grazing plan. Desirable species provide high quality forage and production for a large part of the grazing season. Typically, the desirable forages are hardy grasses and legumes that regrow quickly. Undesirable species are those that are typically unpalatable to the grazing animal or may contain anti-nutritional components. Plant diversity is also important to maintain a productive pasture throughout the entire landscape and growing season. If only one kind of plant exists, diversity is narrow, and production will be limited. If many plant varieties are present, diversity is broad. High plant density must also be maintained as bare and open spots are unproductive and allow for weed encroachment and soil erosion.

Management of a forage stand relies upon the level of utilization that allows for maximum grazing of forage without damage or negative impact to the vegetation, including both above and below ground growth. Determining the optimum amount of forage to remove versus leave behind is not an easy task and depends upon plant, animal and environmental factors. Research findings and professional judgement help provide guidelines for determining appropriate level of utilization, but experience is the best guide. A general guideline often employed by grazing mangers employs the ‘take half, leave half’ rule or 50% utilization by weight (biomass) of the key available forage species in a stand. This level of utilization fits a moderate level of grazing intensity and is a good starting guideline to employ. However, it is important to adjust utilization rates based upon site-specific variables including forage species, time of year, available forage, and overall management goals.

The overall condition of a forage stand impacts the number of animals that a pasture can support and the length of time that grazing can occur. Factors such as previous grazing management, species of forage, age of stand, soil type, texture, fertility level and moisture conditions all influence forage yield and quality and consequently stocking rate. Understanding these factors and implementing a grazing system is key to effective grazing management.

An interactive Forage Species Selection Tool is available to assist land managers in selecting the correct forage species best suited their land. Seeding rate and seed cost calculators are integrated as well.

Visit the Rangeland and Riparian Health page for more information, including videos, related to pasture condition and health assessments.

A grazing plan that matches animal numbers to predicted forage yields should be carried out before animal turnout.

An important first step in developing a plan includes defining goals and objectives for the entire grazing operation. This includes profitability measures, lifestyle choices, and biological outcomes such as soil health, forage production, ecosystem impacts and animal performance.

Conducting an inventory of resources is essential. How much forage is available and at what times during the grazing season? Is the forage source able to meet the intended animals’ nutritional requirements? How long is the intended grazing season? What physical infrastructure is available or needed?

This process of completing an inventory and evaluating resources is critical to developing and implementing a successful grazing system. The Pasture Planner: A Guide to Developing Your Grazing System provides an excellent resource to assist producers with planning, development and/or modification of their grazing system. It includes a number of worksheets and templates useful in the inventory and planning process.

A grazing system is the way a producer manages forage resources to feed animals, balancing livestock demand (both quantity and quality) with forage availability and promoting rapid pasture re-growth during the grazing season as well as long-term pasture persistence.Grazing systems will vary with the climate, plant species, soil types and livestock. Systems that are commonly used in Canada include continuous grazing or controlled grazing systems which are numerous and varied, even in their terminology, including but not limited to: rotational grazing, forward grazing, creep grazing, strip grazing, limit grazing, stockpile grazing and extended grazing.

A number of resources exist which provide an excellent overview of the types, development, and implementation of grazing systems. Examples include:

Maritime Pasture Manual: Chapter 2 – Grazing Systems

Managing Saskatchewan Rangeland

Pasture Planner: A Guide for Developing Your Grazing System

With continuous grazing, animals will naturally graze the most palatable plant species most frequently. Root reserves are eventually exhausted, and plants may die. In highly stocked continuously grazed pastures, regrowth will be grazed quite frequently. Lightly stocked continuously grazed pastures consist of patches of plants in phase I and phase III. If animals are forced to eat phase III material, their daily intake will drop, reducing animal gains.

In a controlled grazing system, animals only have access to relatively small parts of a pasture for a period of time. Pastures are divided into paddocks where the land is grazed for relatively short periods of time following which, livestock are removed to ensure the plants have adequate time to recover before being grazed again. Because this requires more knowledge of forage plants and pasture-animal interactions, controlled grazing is often referred to as management-intensive grazing (MIG).

Whether managing native rangeland or tame forage species, four basic principles of management apply:

  • balance the number of animals with available forage supply
  • obtain a uniform distribution of animals over the landscape
  • alternate periods of grazing and rest to manage and maintain the vegetation
  • use the kinds of livestock most suited to the forage supply and the objectives of management.

Stocking rate histories on similar fields in the same area can be very useful in setting initial stocking rates. The optimum number of animals on a pasture makes efficient use of the forage but leaves enough plant material behind to allow a quick and complete recovery.

When developing a grazing system, paddock shape should be determined by the topography, soil type, and species differences to reduce problems with uneven grazing and varying recovery time. If a paddock has a lot of variation in it, some areas will be underutilized while others are severely grazed.

The size of individual paddocks should be determined by the projected herd size based on forage production potential and preferred stock density to keep the frequency of cattle moves consistent. As productivity of the land increases, paddock size should be reduced to achieve desired levels of utilization. Generally, square paddocks offer more uniform forage utilization and better manure distribution compared to long narrow shapes.

Developing a practical water distribution system is an important consideration in designing an efficient grazing plan and paddock design. Access to water impacts grazing patterns of livestock and understanding this will assist in managing forage utilization. It is recommended that pasture systems be designed to provide water sources within 600 to 800 feet of all areas of a paddock for optimum uniformity of grazing2.  Portable water systems are a powerful tool for managing grazing distribution and manure cycling. If water cannot be provided in each paddock, laneways designed to bring the stock to the water source are the next alternative. Plan the pasture layout to minimize laneway length and keep laneway width within 16 –24 feet to reduce the amount of loafing by animals3. Similarly, minimizing the common area around a water source will reduce the amount of time that animals spend congregating at the site.

 

Proper livestock distribution, achieved by spreading grazing animals over a pasture management unit to obtain uniform use of all forage resources, can increase production. Grazing distribution varies with the kind and class of grazing animal, topography, location of water, salt and mineral placement, forage palatability, vegetation type, forage quality, forage quantity, location of shade and shelter, fencing patterns, pasture size, grazing system, stock density, and prevailing winds.

Ideal grazing distribution occurs when the entire pasture is grazed uniformly to an appropriate degree within a predetermined time frame. Cattle, being creatures of habit, rarely graze uniformly when left alone. They graze convenient areas, especially those near water and easily accessible. Livestock do not graze randomly and must be forced or enticed to seldom used areas.

Improving grazing distribution results in higher harvest efficiency because livestock consume a greater proportion of the available forage. It also spreads defoliation effects across a greater proportion of available forage plants.

Methods for improving livestock distribution include:

  • managing stock density and/or season of grazing;
  • forcing animals to specific locations by fencing;
  • using grazing management strategies such as rotational grazing;
  • enticing animals to specific locations with water, salt, supplemental feed, or rub and oiler placement; and
  • using the kind and class of livestock best suited to the terrain and vegetation characteristics.

Placement of water developments is probably the most important factor affecting grazing distribution as water is the central point of grazing activities. Near water, plants are heavily used and forage production drops. Reducing pasture size and reducing the distance to water can significantly improve livestock distribution. Salt and mineral should be placed away from water and used to distribute animals more uniformly.

Topography is an important cause of poor grazing distribution. Where possible, pastures should be fenced to minimize variability in topography, plant communities, and timing of plant growth.

Shade is another important factor of animal distribution as animals will migrate towards these areas during the hot times of the day to stay cool and to avoid insect irritation.

Legumes as part of an annual grazing plan can be advantageous as these plants can help restore soil nitrogen, increase forage yields and extend pasture carrying capacity. Improved animal performance may also be achieved when grazing stands containing legumes. However, legume grazing requires increased management efforts to ensure optimal stand persistence and animal performance.

Producers are often hesitant to seed alfalfa for grazing purposes due to fears of bloat even though yield and productivity could be increased. To gain the benefits of grazing this legume, careful management is critical. To reduce the risk:

  • do not move cattle onto new pasture when it’s wet with heavy dew, rainfall or irrigation water. Grazing alfalfa when it is wet increases the possibility of bloat, so it’s better to move animals to a new pasture in the afternoon rather than in the morning.
  • never allow animals to stand hungry before turning them into an alfalfa pasture, as it can lead to overconsumption of fresh alfalfa.
  • wait until alfalfa is in full bloom to graze. Bloat risk is highest when alfalfa is in vegetative to early bloom stages of growth. As alfalfa enters the full bloom or post bloom stages, soluble protein levels decrease, plant cell walls thicken, lignin content increases, and the rate of digestion of alfalfa in the rumen decreases.
  • do not graze alfalfa for three days to two weeks following a killing frost. Frost may increase the incidence of bloat by rupturing plant cell walls, leading to a high initial rate of digestion. Delay grazing alfalfa until the stand dries. The time required to dehydrate varies by location and weather.

The risk of bloat when grazing pure alfalfa stands can also be reduced through the selection of reduced bloat varieties (e.g. AC Grazeland) and the use of products including Bloat-Guard, the Rumensin CRC bolus, or Alfasure.

Many producers prefer to avoid bloat by seeding alfalfa-grass mixtures. Depending on the percentage of alfalfa in the mix, this can reduce the risk of bloat but maintaining alfalfa within the stand can be a challenge. Over time plants disappear from the stand eliminating many of the benefits including increased fertility.

A study in Swift Current, Saskatchewan4 showed that alfalfa and sainfoin plant counts both dropped by 50% over the four-year grazing trial. Research conducted near Brandon, Manitoba also found that the alfalfa percentage in a mix declined from 75.4 – 84.1% to 32.5 – 40.3% over a four-year period5.

The following management techniques can help to maintain legumes in a stand:

  • in the spring, wait until alfalfa is three to four inches tall before grazing. After the spring grazing period ends, allow the alfalfa to regrow for about 25 to 40 days before grazing again or cutting for hay.
  • allow plants rest during September and October, or control grazing to maintain at least 6 to 8 inches of standing alfalfa at all times.
  • avoid reducing stubble height to less than 2 or 3 inches in late fall to help protect alfalfa from winter damage.
  • allow plants to grow without cutting or grazing for at least four to six weeks prior to the first killing frost.

There are many other legume species that in more recent times are seeing increased use within grazed pasture stands. This includes sainfoin, cicer milkvetch, birdsfoot trefoil, alsike clover, red clover, white clover, kura clover, sweet clover, and purple or white prairie clover. These legumes may not have the yields of alfalfa but may better suit the land, soil type, or management system. Legumes including sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil, purple prairie clover and white prairie clover contain condensed tannins which can reduce protein breakdown in the rumen and prevent bloat. Having protein digested in the small intestine instead of by the rumen bacteria contributes to more efficient animal growth. If these tannin-containing legumes are seeded in a mixture with alfalfa they will “actively” reduce bloat risk. Cicer milk vetch does not have tannins but is slower to digest so will not cause bloat.

As a non-bloating legume, animal gains on sainfoin pastures can be as efficient and rapid as on alfalfa pasture. Sainfoin is resistant to the alfalfa weevil, grows earlier in the spring and later in the fall. Researchers at AAFC Lethbridge have been selecting sainfoin for improved yield, regrowth and survival in alfalfa stands, and have found that sainfoin’s survival depends partly on the alfalfa variety it is grown with, as well as where it is grown.

More information about legume grazing strategies and research being conducted can be found in the following BCRC Factsheets:

Keeping legumes in pasture stands longer

New sainfoin varieties

Increasing fall productivity in winter-hardy alfalfa

Grazing alfalfa more safely

Improving abiotic stress tolerance in alfalfa

A working knowledge of grazing management terms and calculations is an extremely useful tool when planning and developing practical, successful grazing plans. The ability to prepare and estimate forage utilization means less uncertainty when dealing with management decisions in ‘real time’ once animals are grazing pastures.

The animal unit (AU) is a standard unit used in calculating the relative grazing impact of different kinds and classes of livestock. One animal unit is defined as a 1000 lb (450 kg) beef cow with or without a nursing calf, with a daily dry matter forage requirement of 26 lb (11.8 kg).

An animal unit month (AUM) is the amount of forage to fulfill metabolic requirements by one animal unit for one month (30 days). One AUM is equal to 780 lbs (355 kg) of dry matter forage.

Forage requirements change with the size and type of animal. Metabolic weight (live weight to the 0.75 power) accounts for significant variation in dry matter intake among animals of different size and provides a more accurate estimate of forage demand. Animal Unit Equivalents (AUE) have been calculated for various species and sizes of animals. Table 1 provides beef cattle size categories and corresponding animal unit equivalents.

Table 1: Beef cattle size categories and corresponding animal units

Stocking rate is the number of animals on a pasture for a specified time period and is usually expressed in Animal Unit Months (AUM) per unit area. For example, an area that supports 30 (1,000 lb) cows for a four-month grazing season has a stocking rate of 120 AUMs for that area. If the pasture is 100 acres in size, the stocking rate would be expressed as 1.2 AUM/acre (120 AUMs divided by 100 acres). Your stocking rate will not stay the same year after year, so you will need to adjust the number of animals you intend to graze to achieve the desired stocking rate for each pasture within your grazing system.

Stock density is the number of animals in a particular area at any moment in time and increases as the number of animals in a paddock increase or as paddock size decreases and is based on level of grazing management. For example, a herd of 30 (1,000 lb) cows on a 2 acre paddock fenced off within the larger 100 acre land base has a stock density of 15,000 lbs/acre (30 cows x 1,000 lbs/cow divided by 2 acres) or 15 Animal Units/acre (1 AU = 1,000 lb therefore 15,000 lbs/acre divided by 1,000 lb = 15 AU/acre), even though the stocking rate for the entire 100 acre pasture is 1.2 AUMs/acre. The difference between these two values is the time factor.

Carrying capacity is the average number of animals that a pasture can support for a grazing season. It is a measure of a pasture’s ability to produce enough forage to meet the animal requirements over the long term and is expressed in AUMs.

Calculation of stocking rates or grazing acreage needed is done by the following steps:

  • estimate the production of each paddock as it is about to be grazed each time to acquire a total production estimate. Include the appropriate rate of utilization (e.g., managing pasture to utilize 50% of the forage available).
  • estimate animal consumption (per day) – nursing cows (with calves) and growing steers or replacement heifers consume approximately 2.5% of body weight (1 AU requires ~ 26 lb forage/day) as forage dry matter.
  • calculate stocking rates (animals/acre) by multiplying your average forage yield (lb/acre) by utilization rate, then divide by the amount an animal unit is expected to consume per month. The formula would look like this:

Stocking rate (AUM/acre) = (Forage yield [lb/acre] x (Utilization rate [%] ÷ 100)) ÷ 780 lb/AU/month

Stockmanship Notes: A Bud Box in Action

Author: Dan Macon – Published on: February 1, 2019

Bud Williams, in many respects, was the leading expert on livestock handling and stockmanship on the planet. I never had the opportunity to meet Bud personally, but I have learned from several people who learned directly from him – notably Roger Ingram (my predecessor as livestock advisor) and from Steve Cote, who teaches and writes about Bud’s techniques today.

Roger had the opportunity to work directly with Bud at a cattle feedlot in Canada in 1993, an experience he writes about in Belief and the Will To Do It. Low-stress stockmanship, Roger writes, requires a change in attitude:

Old Attitude: “I’m going to MAKE that animal do what I want.”

New Attitude: “I’m going to LET that animal do what I want.”

Old Attitude: “That miserable [fill in your own profanity] cow [or sheep, goat, etc.] broke back [missed the gate, charged me, got sick, etc.].

New Attitude: “What did I do to cause the animal to react that way?”

Steve Cote, in his first book, Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management, writes:

“The best handlers have the best attitudes. They watch, adjust, and constantly move to where the stock show them the need to be to get the job done right, all the time.”

As I’ve worked my own sheep, and helped other producers handle cattle, sheep and goats, I’ve realized that low stress stockmanship is a continual learning process. The key, for me, is that I believe in it – I’ve seen the results when it works well! When something doesn’t work, though, I don’t abandon my belief in the approach; rather, I think about what I could have done differently. Thoughtful stockmanship requires us to assume that if the animals aren’t doing what we expect or desire that they are trying to communicate with us (rather than misbehaving).

This idea that stockmanship is a lifelong learning process, at least for me, is what separates Bud Williams from Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin’s facility designs are excellent, but in many ways they are designed to minimize stress on livestock when the handlers using the system are not students of stockmanship. Bud Williams’ designs, on the other hand, work amazingly well because they are based on the principle that the handlers understand livestock behavior. The “Bud Box,” which we use in our sheep corrals, is a great example of this principle.

Bud taught that animals will follow certain instinctive behaviors if they are in a normal mental state. Animals want to move in the direction they are headed; they also instinctively prefer to exit a pen where they entered it. They want to follow other animals (in other words, movement creates more movement when working with a herd or flock). They want to see what is pressuring them. If we want them to speed up, we can walk in the opposite direction of their movement; walking in the same direction as the animals will slow them down.

The Bud Box system takes advantage of these behaviors. Unlike the solid-sided, curved alleys and sorting “tubs” typical of many of the Dr. Grandin-designed facilities I’ve seen, the Bud Box is simple, open-sided, and straight. The Bud Box itself is a smallish pen at the head of the alley (for our sheep corrals, this pen is 8 feet by 10 feet – big enough for 8-10 ewes). The direction of movement into the alley is back towards the location where the animals entered the corrals (so they naturally want to return there). The opening at the head of the alley allows the animals to move away from the pressure of the handler working in the Bud Box – this handler simply walks from the opening diagonally through the Bud Box, which induces the animals to move away (and into the alley) in a calm manner. From there, a handler can walk with purpose in the opposite direction of the animal flow through the alley – this will induce the animals to move up the alley (towards a squeeze chute, or in our case, towards our sort gate). All of this can be done with yelling, whistling, or using hot shots (or even rattle-paddles) to force the animals to go where we want them to go.

In our sheep operation, I’ve found that I can sort a group of sheep quickly working with just a dog. The dog helps load the Bud Box. The sheep are trained to the system – they will usually put themselves in the alley. While I stand at the sort gate at the end of the alley, the dog walks in the opposite direction of the sheep in the alley, which causes them to move forward (and through my sort gate).

Last month, we held a workshop on trimming feet and giving vaccinations to sheep. Using a drone, Roger was able to provide a bird’s eye view of the Bud Box. This YouTube video shows us loading the alley, scanning ear tags, and sorting a whether into a holding pen.

Working animals rarely goes perfectly! Problems, at least when I’m in the proper frame of mind, are learning opportunities. Stockmanship requires cross-species communication (indeed, in the video above, there are sheep, dogs, and humans trying to communicate with one another). In my experience, time for reflection is also important – thinking about what worked (and what didn’t) can make us better stock handlers!