I am betting that by the time you read this, the grass is turning green and I am well past working on my pasture plans. That’s because I am working on them now. It is very important for my operation to have my graze periods and my rest periods for each pasture planned out well in advance.
If you have followed my articles, you know the grazing concepts that are very important in my grass management — graze period, rest period, stock density, and animal impact.
A short graze period is important to prevent the second bite. We do not want to be grazing a plant when the roots have low energy reserves. It is the root reserves that we are managing, not the top of the plant. The graze period has to be short enough so that the animals are not allowed to re-bite a plant after it has started to put up a new leaf. If the plant is grazed when the root reserves are low, we are overgrazing. Right! Okay, graze period is easy. Move the cattle before the plants start to regrow.
Then we go to a seminar or a conference and you hear a speaker talk about the importance of rest. Well, “he” said that we need a “35-day rest period.” Wait a second. Every environment is different and every farm is different and every year is different.
My ideal rest period might change from year to year depending on the conditions, the health of a pasture or my goal for the particular piece of land. It also changes throughout the season, depending on growing conditions. The key to good pasture management is the ability to adapt, change and adjust your plan.
The rest period is not the same in Alberta as it is in Texas, Ontario or New Zealand. But the concept of rest is the same everywhere. It is because we are managing the same issue as the graze period. We are managing the roots. We want to give the plants adequate time to recover before regrazing. If the rest is too short, then root reserves will not have time to replenish before the next grazing. If the plant is grazed when the root reserves are low, we are overgrazing! Both the graze period and the rest period have to be managed to prevent overgrazing.
So how do we figure out our rest period? That depend on three factors: moisture, season and forage health.
Moisture is first. A very dry environment might require a 365-day rest period or a “once over” grazing plan to be sustainable. With very little rainfall, the soil will need plenty of residue left and a long recovery to maintain a healthy stand. We really need to build our water holding capacity in this type of environment. On the opposite end, a very high rainfall area or a pasture under irrigation might start with a 25-day rest period and you might graze each paddock three or four times per season. And then we have everything in between.
What if you are in a semi-dry area? Maybe a “one and a half” rotation is needed? This would mean that half of your paddocks would get grazed twice, and the other half would only get grazed once during the season. Ideally, the following year you would graze them opposite so that the other paddocks only get hit once. This would put our first rest period around 60 days. How about a twice-over rotation in an environment with a little more rainfall? We would plan to hit every paddock twice throughout the grazing season. Our first rest period might be around 40 days. As you can see, the environment plays a big part in determining your rest period.
Next is rate of growth. Early in the season we usually have the spring flush then in summer growth slows down. As the growth slows we want to lengthen the rest period to allow more recovery time. When the growth is fast, we might want to make sure the rest period is shorter so that the plants do not mature and go to seed.
In a drought the same principles apply; the plants are growing slower so we increase the rest period. On the other side of the coin, this lengthens our graze period which is okay now due to the slower growth.
A quick rule of thumb: when plants are growing fast, move fast, when they are growing slow, move slow.
Don’t forget forage health. Last season I backed my first rest period off by more than 20 days due to the previous two years of drought. I was concerned about the health of the forage and wanted to manage for the land. I under-stocked and allowed more residue to remain and purposely allowed some plants and some paddocks to go to seed. Nothing is sustainable without another generation to follow behind so I wanted to add organic matter and add to the seed bank.
One key piece to the puzzle that even a lot of experienced grazers still overlook, is managing for the rest period. Instead of looking at the paddock you are grazing and deciding if it is time to move or not, you need to look ahead at the paddocks you will be grazing next month. The question is not “is this paddock done?” It is “What stage of growth will the other paddocks be in when I get there?” “Will the rest period be adequate?”
Finally, be ready to adapt to changing conditions. I have yet to make a grazing plan that I carry out exactly as planned.
When I do my plan I pick my desired rest period. From that, I set my average graze period per paddock, keeping in mind early spring paddocks have less forage and fewer ADAs. Some paddocks will be more productive and each pasture will vary. That is why I set an average graze period. Now you can run through your whole grazing season on paper and set some target dates. Target dates are important to keep your rest period on track. If you are behind your target, you need to speed up your rotation. If you are ahead, slow down and/or destock. It is not as simple as moving every Saturday. We are managing the root systems, and you can’t see them.
My point is if you read an article, listen to a speaker or attend a conference, don’t forget — your farm is different than everyone else. You need to learn the grazing concepts and be able to adapt them to your operation. You can’t copy what someone else is doing. I believe that these four grazing concepts are the key to a profitable business in agriculture. The graze period, rest period, stock density and animal impact will have a huge economic impact on our industry over the next generation.
Does your business need some rest?
SteveKenyonrunsGreenerPasturesRanchingLtd.inBusby,Alta., www.greenerpasturesranching.com, 780-307-6500,email