A very common question that I receive at many of my conferences or seminars is, “What should we plant?” They are of course referring to the type of forage species to seed into their overgrazed pastures? This might seem like a pretty straightforward question but I always catch producers off guard with my answer. They are looking for the latest and greatest grass and/or legume seed that will magically fix their pasture. Our industry has trained us to look for a Band-Aid fix, a quick solution that can reverse what poor management has caused. If a symptom exists in agriculture, you can bet someone has come up with a quick fix you can buy in a box, bag or bottle.
What we need to look for is the solution, not a quick fix to address the symptom. In an old, worn out pasture, the symptom is poor grass production and maybe an increase in weeds. By addressing the symptom by reseeding, we are not fixing the problem. To address the problem of overgrazing, we need to first plant fence posts.
To be able to manage the pasture to prevent overgrazing, we need to start a rotational grazing system that is managed according to the four grazing concepts. We need some cross fencing to manage the concepts:
Graze period: The amount of time the animals are allowed on a specific paddock.
Rest period: The time given to a paddock to allow the plants to recover.
Stock density: The number of animal days per acre at a given time.
Animal impact: The physical stimulation upon the soil by the animal’s hooves.
Every environment is different but the concepts never change. We need to adjust the concepts to fit the environment. I might need to graze differently than you but we both still need to understand the concepts and manage the grazing. This is the only true fix to a worn out pasture. If you are willing to fix the problem, by all means go ahead and treat the symptom as well but only if you address the problem first.
The graze period is important to prevent cattle from taking a second bite. We do not want to be grazing a plant when it has low energy reserves. It is the energy reserves that we are managing, not the top of the plant. The graze period has to be short enough so that the animals do not have time to re-bite plants that have started to put up a new leaf. If the plant is grazed when the energy reserves are low, we are overgrazing. Simple. Move the cattle before the plants start to regrow.
The rest period might not be the same in Alberta as it is in Nevada but the concept of rest is the same everywhere. It is because we are managing the same issue — the energy reserves of the plant. If the rest period is too short, then the energy reserves will not have had time to replenish before the next grazing. If plants are grazed when the reserves are low, we are overgrazing. Both the graze period and the rest period have to be managed together to prevent overgrazing.
Stock density is the number of animal units on a piece of land at a specific point in time. It is measured in animal days per acre. The benefits of a higher stock density are improved plant utilization and better manure distribution. If you have good plant utilization, every plant is either bitten or stepped on or damaged in some way. This allows for an even playing field for every plant when the pasture regrows. The higher the stock density, the better your manure distribution and the better your nutrient recycling will be. We want the nutrients spread back out on the land as evenly as possible. The higher the stock density, the better it is for the land.
Animal impact helps with seedling development, nutrient recycling and breaking up capped soil. It can also improve the land, as the cattle tramp a lot of litter into the ground for better recycling of plant materials.
All four of these concepts have to be working together to heal a pasture. It is the only true “fix” to a worn out old pasture. So in answer to the question, what is the first thing we need to plant, it is fence posts. We need to manage the grazing first.
If you still want to plant some new species out there, by all means, do that. Every area is different and a different species may do better in your area.
If I wanted to add some new legumes to fix some free nitrogen, I would select a few different types that do well in my area. I would also make sure we have some bunch grasses that do well in my area to get some growth and root depth, plus some creeping grasses to fill in the holes and hold onto more of the rainfall and reduce evaporation. I believe that a good polyculture is the best forage crop to have. I like shrubs and trees as well. The more different types of plants we have, the greater the biodiversity we will have in our soil and our wildlife.
The solutions to our problems in agriculture do not come from a box, bag or bottle. They come from our management.
Spring is right around the corner, so let’s get planting! Happy grazing.