Hope you have your plan together for this year’s pastures. If not, your first question is: What is your stocking rate? Stocking rate is the number of animal units that you plan to have on the pasture for the season. This, of course, is not determined by the number of acres grazed, but it needs to come from the production of the land. Every environment is different so I cannot give you a “one size fits all” remedy. I graze mostly yearlings on our ranch as I am a custom grazier but every year I gain some land and/or I lose some land because all of my land is leased. I am constantly adjusting my stocking rates.
I have a rule of thumb for my area of one Animal Day for every open acre of good-producing land in my pasture. Now if it’s not my best-producing pasture then I will adjust it down from there but I don’t include bush acres. For example, if my pasture is 290 acres in size, and I have 200 acres that are open, productive land, and the remainder is bush I would stock it at about 200 light yearlings. (For my calculations, one AD is a yearling less than 700 lbs.) If I know the production on the land is less than optimal, then I might bring in only 150 head. Now, of course, this rule of thumb might not work for you as we have different environments, but I would suggest that you develop your own stocking rate rule of thumb for your area. This might need to be adjusted for the type of land or type of forage.
Maybe you are in a drier area and you will only get an Animal Day for every two or three or 10 acres of open land. It will be your rule for your area. My rule is also for grazing feeder cattle when I know the owner will be taking the cattle to the feedlot in early fall. This would mean I am only aiming at a 4.5- to five-month grazing season. If I have bred heifers or cows coming in and the producer wants pasture as long as possible, then I would lower the stocking rate as I would like to keep the cattle out on grass much later into the winter. Maybe I would only bring in 125 yearlings or maybe 75 pairs. For this example, let’s stick to the 150 yearlings for five months and I will plan for a twice-over graze.
Next we need to determine our desired rest period. This depends on how dry or wet your environment is, the condition of your pastures, and your desired management for the land. Let’s continue using our example of 290 acres and we will say we have it fenced off into 22 paddocks (because that is the map I am using). Let’s say we are in a moderate rainfall area and we get some good growth most years. We have decided that for the moisture conditions and the quality of the pasture we would like a 60-day rest period. (This number is variable depending on your conditions; don’t write this number down!) This means that between grazings, we want to have 60 days for the plants to recover and replenish their root reserves. In a drier environment, the rest period needs to be longer and in wetter areas or under irrigation the rest period can be shorter (30 days to a full year’s rest).
We now have our stocking rate and we have our rest period. Next is the length of the graze period. We use a calculation for this. Graze period = rest period/(number of paddocks -1). The reason we need to minus one off the number of paddocks is because we will always have the cattle on one paddock at any given time. Graze period = 60/(22-1) = 3 days average on the first rotation. I say average because at the beginning of the season, we will not have enough grass in the paddocks to last the full three days. And by the end of the 60 days we might have way more than three days of grazing in the paddocks. In the real world we also know that each paddock is not exactly the same size and I don’t mean the same size in acres but more importantly not the same size in forage production. Some paddocks have more Animal Days per acre (ADAs) than others.
From the Manitoba Co-operator website: Research finds two crops can be better than one in forage production
Now it is time to look at the map, and plot our first graze period on the grazing chart. As you will see on the map, we need to plan for animal movement. I do not graze in the order of the paddock numbers. I graze for ease of movement, for the rotation as well as where the gates are located. My loading system is portable so I can start grazing in more than one spot. For this example we will start grazing in paddock S4. We will start grazing on May 15 and I am looking for an average graze period of three days. Remember that on May 15, there will not be a lot of grass out there so I will plan to be in that paddock for only one day. For training purposes, I would actually strip graze (or Mob Graze) down that paddock on the first day. This means I will move a portable fence about eight times down the paddock on the first day to train the animals to come when they are called. For the next five or so paddocks I know that I will only be on them for about a day. The paddocks in the N quarter have a little better production so I know that once I get onto paddock N3, I will be getting two days out of each paddock. You will see that once I hit June 1, I am predicting that I will be getting three days out of each paddock. I skipped N4 and N7 as they are riparian areas and they will be too wet to graze just yet. We will graze them later on in the rotation. On the right quarter with the alley system design (the N quarter), for ease of movement, it is easiest to start grazing farthest away from the water and work your way back. I also skipped paddock N2 as I will need it to get back into the S quarter.
By June 16, I am predicting we will be up to a four-day graze period. Picture the grass at the end of June as compared to May 15. I know from history that S6 and S8 both have about six days worth of forage by this time in the season. This might be a good time to go camping. The end of the first graze period works out to be July 11. That would make my rest period 60 days which is right on my prediction. If you are not happy with that rest period, you can go back and adjust a few days here and there to get your 60-day rest period. For this particular pasture, it is in pretty good shape so I would have been happy with 58 days. I know from experience that you never graze exactly as you plan anyway.
Now that we are onto the second graze period, we know that we can lengthen the graze period a bit as the growth has slowed. You will also notice when you are out grazing that the paddocks on your second rotation will be a lot more uniform in production. The second rotation is easier. In this example I would expect to be on each paddock for about four or five days each, depending on the paddock and the production in that year. Every season is different but if all goes well, we can expect those four days for the rest of the season. Four days times 22 paddocks should give us 88 more days of grass, taking us to the beginning of October with a total grazing season of 148 days (October 3).
I hope this helps you understand how to develop a grazing plan. Of course, if you are planning to graze later in the season with cows or bred heifers, you would lower your stocking rate to extend the season. At this point you need to understand that the plan is not written in stone. You may need to make adjustments due to weather, the animals or the production. This will be a guideline to make sure you keep control of both your graze period and your rest period allowing for a healthy productive stand. Keep referring back to your plan during the spring to make sure you are still on track. Clear as mud? It is more difficult than I thought to put a grazing plan into writing. I’d be happy to clarify any details if you want to contact me. Best wishes! c
Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta., www.greenerpasturesranching.com, 780-307-6500, email [email protected] or find them on Facebook.