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Planned grazing

There is a lot of misinformation about the beneficial or detrimental effects cattle may have on land. This is unfortunate. Various groups often have serious disagreements depending on whether they see cattle as beneficial or detrimental to the land. Often both groups are sincere and in fact, both may be correct in their viewpoints. Often people are so busy defending their view that they don’t take the time to seriously listen and reflect on what may be correct. I think cattle can be either beneficial or detrimental to the land. The key is in the management of the cattle.

Cattle managed in a continuous grazing situation are detrimental to the land. Cattle managed in a planned grazing situation are beneficial. Arguing over whether cattle are beneficial or detrimental will produce no positive results. Realizing that the management of the cattle can change the results can result in understanding, harmony and positive change. Most groups want healthy land. Realizing that, we can now move on to how we manage our cattle to achieve the results we desire.

Planned grazing mimics how a large herd of bison may have grazed years ago. We want to have a short graze period, a high stock density and full recovery of the plants before they are grazed a second time. We also monitor growing conditions and adjust our recovery period based on our monitoring.

The graze period is defined as the amount of time cattle are allowed to stay in a pasture at one time. Overgrazing is a function of time. To enjoy the positive impacts that cattle can have on the land we must stop overgrazing. This requires a short graze period. As a general rule the shorter the better. For practical purposes a graze period of three to five days may be a good place to start.

The stock density is the number of head per acre at a given time. The higher the stock density the better the results. The stock density is affected by the graze period. As you shorten the graze period you increase the stock density.

The recovery period is the number of days that the plants have to regrow before they are grazed a second time. Full recovery of the plants is essential. In most areas a recovery period of 60 to 90 days is likely required. My experience has been that the results tend to improve as you move closer to the 90-day range. In dry, slow-growing areas grazing only once in the growing season may be the best choice.

From the Manitoba Co-operator website: Patience pays with grass-finished beef

Monitoring plant regrowth is essential to planned grazing. In fact this is one of the major differences between planned grazing and so many other types. We don’t make a plan and blindly follow it. We make a plan and adjust it to current growing conditions by increasing or decreasing the recovery period. The result is full recovery under all growing conditions.

Let’s look at an example. The first question might be, how many pastures are required to do a proper job of grazing? The answer is, I don’t know. However, if you select a graze period and a recovery period we can determine how many pastures you will need. The formula is:

recovery period / graze period + 1 = pastures required.

75 / 5 + 1 = 16 pastures.

75 / 3 + 1 = 26 pastures.

Both of these are correct for a 75-day recovery period using different grazing periods.

Now let’s look at how our monitoring can be used to adjust our recovery period. We will look at years with excellent, average and poor growing conditions. By monitoring we are able to adjust our graze period. The result is full recovery of the plants despite the different growing conditions.

Table showing recovery period for cattle grazing.

Planned grazing is a powerful tool to improve our land and our bottom line. We are all well aware of the rising price of land. Buying the neighbour’s quarter isn’t the easy option it once was. Improving production on the land we have is more profitable and sustainable than buying more. I invite you to consider improving your grazing management. I think you will be pleased with the results. Happy trails.

Don Campbell ranches with his family at Meadow Lake, Sask., and teaches Holistic Management courses. He can be reached at 306-236-6088 or [email protected].

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Don Campbell

Don Campbell ranches with his family at Meadow Lake, Sask., 
and teaches Holistic Management courses.

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