PASTURE MANAGEMENT FOR GRAZING
Pasture management is defined as the practice of growing healthy grass and related plants to profitably sustain forage availability and beef production while ensuring ecological health. Good pasture management should be both proactive (maintaining soil fertility) and reactive (managing pests, weeds and seeds when they are affecting productivity). It should aim to maximize the productivity and persistence of the pasture and avoid or delay pasture rundown.
Well-managed pastures contribute significantly to the sustainability of a ranch operation and the health of surrounding ecosystems. Many ranchers now assert that their primary activity is growing grass, not beef. Nevertheless, grass management practices have traditionally been categorized under ecosystem or grazing management.
Think of your pasture as your crop and your beef cattle as means to harvest and add value to that crop. A well-managed grass-legume pasture is one of the most cost-effective and high value feeds that can be produced and utilized.
Benefits from well managed pastures include:
- Maximized forage production = lower feed bills,
- Better livestock health = lower veterinary bills,
- Minimizes risk of contaminated runoff from livestock manure and degraded pastures Polluting local waterways and,
- Healthy pastures look better than muddy, weed ridden fields.
Tips for better pasture management
In order to be a successful beef farmer, one must manage two key factors very well: (a) the land and (b) the cattle. As the dry season draws closer, it’s a good time to think about the ways you can improve your pastures, and subsequently increase your calves’ gains, as well.
There are many factors that play a role in pasture productivity. Some factors can be controlled, while others can’t.
1. Manage your pasture first
Being able to grow healthy pasture and other desirably related plants is the goal of managing your pasture first. Having healthy grass and other desirable plants (forage legumes) can help ensure profitability through consistent forage availability and livestock sustenance. To maximise your ability to grow forages, you should be able to understand and measure the capacity or your pasture to support your livestock. For example, if you manage your grass first, you can expand your forage resources, which can mean being able to feed more beef cattle with a higher stocking rate. Feeding more beef cattle, lets you earn more income.
By managing your pasture first, you are enhancing and conserving your grass resources, increasing the quantity and improving the quality of your forage, restoring the nutritional quality of your soil, thereby lowering your overall operational costs. Your primary asset is not your livestock for production, but your healthy and nutritious pasture which continues to ensure the excellent quality of farm outputs from your cattle.
More so, when you manage your pasture first, you are significantly contributing to the sustainability of your pasture’s surrounding ecosystem. Integrated pest management (IPM) is your best friend and can enhance your farming system with proper pasture management.
2. Determine capacity for animal units
Know the carrying capacity for your pasture supplies during a normal year. Does this match your current inventory? Make efforts to prevent overgrazing, not only to benefit animal performance, but also to maintain the health of your forage stands (particularly late in the season) and in the years ahead. Identify triggers such as changes in forage supplies or animal performance that call for evaluation of forage and grazing plans.
3. Control the growth of weeds
Weeds compete with the sown species and reduce productivity of the pasture. They can result from inadequate land preparation or excessive grazing. If seed is sown into a weedy seedbed, the ready-established weeds suppress the developing forage seedlings. If pastures are overgrazed, cattle select their preferred species and avoid others, leading to a build-up of unpalatable species i.e. weeds. Weeds at establishment can be controlled by hand-weeding, or spraying with selective herbicide. Non-selective herbicides such as glyphosate can be used if the sown species are in obvious rows. While weeds in established pastures can be similarly controlled, the most effective control is adoption of more lenient defoliation management practices. Judicious high mowing can also be a valuable tool to tip things back in favour of the sown species, particularly with annual weeds.
4. Have a pasture management plan for maximum return
Establishing good pastures is very costly. A pasture management plan is mainly all about resources management.
- Identify the kinds of resources that you have.
- List down all the changes that you would like to see with your plan.
- Identify the capital that you have that you are capable of pouring into making these changes.
When you identify your goals in anything, a necessary step to make sure that you attain them is to develop a plan to do so — the same with pasture management. You should identify underperforming resources in your pastures and look for grazing practices that can solve the issues with these underperforming resources. These resources may include land, livestock, water, and capital. Part of your forage management plan is the goal of attaining the maximum potential return from the correct management of all these resources.
5. Identify the most suitable grazing system
Have a plan for what your grazing season will look like. Plan for grazing rotations by estimating number of animal units, amount of forage to be harvested, and order of rotation. Utilize pastures to capture forage quality and quantity most efficiently, but also consider nutrient requirements of the animals. Start with a plan and consider if routines may be in place simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and consider if more appropriate methods or routines exist.
In general you can use height as a guide with most forages needing to reach about 30 cm before gazing begins. Don’t rush to graze it off, or leave the animals on it too long. Make sure the crop has adequate time to recover after grazing, to make sure you have good survival. In general, you should plan on using these newly established fields as supplement for other pastures, not the primary source for at least the first year.
There are different types of grazing systems for different kinds of pastures. A grazing system gives a schedule of when and where animals should graze during a pasture season. The goal of having a grazing system is to produce high-quality pasture for the entire grazing season. In choosing the right grazing system, you should make sure that:
- It is flexible and straightforward. You will be doing this the entire year, so deviate from complex and rigid systems.
- It should be on the proper and maximum utilisation of forage plants, as well as the even distribution of grazing livestock.
- Always keep in mind that no grazing system will enable you to eliminate the need for proper stocking rates.
- There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to selecting the grazing system for your pasture.
Common grazing systems include: (i) rotational grazing; (ii) strip grazing and (iii) continuous grazing.
(i) Rotational grazing
Rotational grazing system provides higher stocking rates, resulting in the efficient use of forage production, which can turn surplus pasture into conserved fodder. It provides flexibility as it involves dividing the farm into paddocks. The herd of cattle are then moved from one paddock to another throughout the grazing season for optimising grazing and forage growth. The rotational grazing system is most effective when the herd is transferred to the next paddock before they have the opportunity to graze the grass too hard. More so, the pasture performance is best when the plants are in their leafy stage of growth, and fertiliser applications on the paddocks are regular.
Rotational grazing systems are generally the most efficient way to get the best use of pastures and maximum beef production per acre, as well as being healthier for the land and plants. When done properly, pasture rotation can prevent overgrazing, aid optimal regrowth of plants, and allow the same piece of ground to be grazed several times during growing season.
(ii) Strip grazing
Strip grazing is a grazing management system that involves giving livestock a fresh allocation of pasture each day. It is usually organized within a paddock grazing system and the animals are controlled by the use of an electric fence.
How to strip graze
- Fence out your strip using electric tape and posts. …
- When the grass has been eaten down, move the electric posts out by approximately one metre, so that a new strip of grass is included in the grazing section and a grazed strip has been left behind in the resting area.
(iii) Continuous grazing
In this method, animals are allowed to have unrestricted, uninterrupted access to a specific unit of land throughout the entire or part of the grazing season. Continuous grazing can serve a role in beef production where animals are encouraged to only eat the “cream of the crop”. Generally, forage utilization is low and around 35%. Stocking density for the farm is not optimized. Another disadvantage is that manure nutrients are often concentrated in loafing areas and near water sources.
When pastures are continually overgrazed, plants are weakened and many productive species die, and unproductive ones replace them. Leaf area is reduced and the growth rate is slow. Water runoff is increased; soil temperatures increases; and overall pasture quality and quantity decrease.
When pastures are undergrazed, forage will accumulate and not be used. Undergrazing also allows briars and woody species to get established.
6. Water supply
Research and observation have verified that livestock prefer to have their water supply within 600 feet of the grazing area. Animal performance and uniformity of grazing are enhanced because they spend less time and energy walking to the water supply.
Water quality should be a high priority. The water system becomes a focal point as the number of paddocks increase. Water lines may be left on top of the ground until the paddock design is finalized.
7. Practice targeted feeding
Reallocating nutrients across your paddocks is one of the many benefits of targeted feeding. In targeted feeding, you focus on paddocks low in soil fertility for feed padding. By doing so, you can build up nutrients from fodder that is brought in and fed out in the paddock. In some targeted feeding systems, a practice is dispersing fodder in the parts of the paddock that have low soil fertility. If this is the practice, it is essential to make sure that portions with low soil fertility are visited and fed with harvested hay more frequently. This system can help preserve the ground from livestock damage and redistribute the nutrients throughout the paddock, especially in areas with low fertility. But, feeding locations must also be rotated to prevent severe overgrazing.
There are many variables regarding the best number of days spent in a paddock. Some farmers find best results by moving cattle daily or even several times a day. Pastures and paddock setups can also make a difference in what’s most feasible. One common method is to create large pastures with permanent fencing and then subdivide them with temporary electric fencing. Understanding the growth phases of forage, the amount of residual feed to leave and when the animals need to be moved is crucial, especially during dry season, or they won’t grow back very well. The cost of feeding a little hay may be less than overgrazing pastures to the point they won’t grow back adequately, leaving less forage over the long run.
8. Soil fertility management
All plants need the various plant nutrients for growth, but vary in the amount of each they require. However, they will only grow to the level set by the limiting nutrient i.e. if the soil is low in phosphorus, no amount of additional nitrogen or any other nutrient will make the plants grow beyond the level set by the amount of phosphorus available to the plant. Soils vary in their ability to supply nutrients, and so it is necessary to know the fertility of the soil, and the fertility demands of the forage varieties to be sown. Soil sampling and testing should be done regularly, at least before planting any new crop as soil nutrient levels vary from year to year.
Always remember that as farmers, our decisions are suitable if we understand and have a gauge of our soil’s fertility levels.
9. Consider farm maintenance as a part of your pasture management plan
Farm maintenance, such as fence work, trees to protect animals from sun and cleaning water troughs are essential parts of overall pasture management. If you fail to do one of these farm maintenance works, it can affect your grazing schedule or even your forage management. In short, for all of these practices to come together, farm maintenance is something you cannot overlook.
10. Be resourceful, innovative, and experimental
Each pasture is unique, and so even if one thing works for somebody else’s pasture does not assure you of success if you do it on your farm. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try, which works best for you.
11. Let go of old ways, if need be- Trust and learn from new research
Try to look beyond traditional methods and instead innovate and adapt new research, findings, and experiments for new pasture management practices. Attend seminars, forums, workshops, and other learning opportunities to gauge and get updated with new results on pasture management. Every day, look for new and better ideas that you can apply to your pasture. Remember, a great pasture management plan is a site-specific one.
SHARING IS CARING!