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How much gain is left?

Grazing with Steve Kenyon: Don’t be fooled by how 
much grass is left

I sure have nothing to complain about this year when it comes to the weather. As a Canadian and a farmer, that is frustrating because that is what we do. A Canadian talks about the weather and a farmer likes to complain. If it were not for the weather, most of us would not even know how to start a conversation.

This spring there was lots of snow for run-off and we had plenty of April showers. May brought sunshine and more rain. June came in hot mixed in with a little rain. July has been a cooker with plenty of thundershowers to keep us soaking wet. My water sources are full. The lowlands are overflowing and the grass is over my head in places. I have more grass than I can handle and the cattle are lovin’ it! What could I possibly complain about?

Well, maybe that the forage is a lower quality because of the heavy growth. Our area has seen its share of drought years but the grass during a drought is usually higher quality. There’s not much of it but it’s high in protein and energy. This year the quality will be lower around here.

I have been speaking with other producers and they were telling me about how much grass they have and how they are taking off extra pastures as hay this year. That is fine. I am not here to tell you that one management practice is wrong and another is right because as I have said before, it all depends on the economics behind the production practice on your farm. But at the same time I look at the pastures that they are grazing and they are being overgrazed. Why? Even with a minimal rotation, some producers are leaving the animals on for too long of a graze period.

But there is still grass out there, you might say. Maybe, but I have a better question for you to ask yourself. “How much gain is left out there?” On any pasture, especially on a year with good growth like this one, the bottom parts of the plants, the stems and lower leaves, are not as nutritious. So yes, there may still be lots of forage out there, but how much gain is left?

Picture a fresh paddock we are about to turn cattle onto. Some nice fresh fescue, a bit of clover, some brome grass filled out nicely, maybe some alfalfa standing proud. Yummy. Tasty and nutritious. Now we turn in the herd. Normally the paddock lasts us three to four days. Well this year with all the growth, after four days there is still a lot of grass left.

Let’s look at the forage again. The fescue is chewed off, the clover is mostly gone, the brome grass is knocked over and half eaten and the alfalfa stems are still standing but not quite so proud as they have very few leaves left. We still have forage in front of them and the animals will be fine for a few more days eating what’s left, but they will not be gaining. The protein and energy percentages are not near as high in what’s left as they were in the first few days.

What are you after? More days or more gain? I almost always pick more gain. Gain as in pounds of beef on yearlings or gain as in weaning weights and body condition in the fall on pairs. Let’s say we leave the animals in that paddock for two more days, we had four days of gain and two days without gain. That’s kind of like two steps forward and one step back. I would much prefer to see gain every day.

So when you are looking at a paddock and deciding whether or not to move the animals, ask yourself, “how much gain is left?” And move the animals early. I have told every exchange student, intern and employee that has been on my ranch. You will never get in trouble for moving too early, but you might for moving too late.

Now don’t get me wrong, you can’t be overstocked and move sooner because that might shorten your rest period too much. Graze Period and Rest Period have to work together. Make sure you are still maintaining an adequate rest period.

As a bonus, by moving when you are out of gain, you also leave extra residue. And you can never leave too much residue. The extra will help reduce run-off and evaporation, feed your soil life, build organic matter and recycle nutrients back into the soil. That will make next year’s pasture even better. That is of course as long as you are managing it for the four grazing concepts (Graze Period, Rest Period, Stock Density and Animal Impact).

Now if your forage gets quite mature then the quality drops quite a bit. No big deal. The plants went to seed and helped replenish the seed bank. That’s a good thing. You can still graze it later in the season, or in the winter, or next spring early. You may need to supplement some protein to help the rumen bugs make better use of it, but it is usually cheaper to supplement on pasture than it is to feed.

So in a good year, when you have great weather and nothing to complain about… and the grass is way ahead of you, what are you going to do? Hay it, or increase your stocking rate to deal with the extra grass? I would not recommend either one. I would take the opportunity nature gave me and give back to feed the soil. Leave extra residue out on the pasture and help build your soil. If I help nature feed the soil in good years, the bad years won’t be all that bad. Oh, and I should have better gains on my animals.

Best wishes. Maybe next month I will have something to complain about.

About the author

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Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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