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Intensive cell grazing for times of drought: It works!

I learned a long 
time ago you 
cannot plan 
for a drought in 
a drought. 
If that is your 
plan, you are 
way too late

cattle in a pasture

In 2002, we had the worst drought in 80 years; 2003 was also dry and the grasshoppers were insane. In 2008, we had another drought. 2009 was also very dry and it was the only year I had to destock early. Now we are in 2015 and we have a severe drought in my area.

What do you think our pastures will look like next year? Well, I can tell you what some pastures in our area might look like. Similar to what they look like now; brown golf greens. Mine will look just fine.

In our area, we seem to have a drought every six or seven years, I know it’s coming so I can plan for it, and I do.

I actually enjoy having a drought hit. This is when my pastures really stand out. I am looking forward to our Pasture Walk this year. I get to show off! I am happy to say, intensive cell grazing works. I learned a long time ago, you cannot plan for a drought in a drought. If that is your plan, you are way too late. Look back. We know that a drought is coming. We need to be planning for the next drought every year.

Every year I build drought resilience on my land through intensive cell grazing. By managing the forage with the four grazing concepts, (Graze Period, Rest Period, Stock Density and Animal Impact) we help heal the soil, build a solid thatch layer and increase the water-holding capacity.

Step 1: Stop overgrazing. By managing the grazing concepts, we stop overgrazing. Our graze period needs to be short enough to prevent the second bite and our rest period needs to be long enough to allow root energy recovery before the next grazing. Strong, healthy root systems are important to keep your forage strong every year and especially in a drought. If the root system is weak, so is your pasture.

Step 2: Leave more residue. We need to remember that there are three things that we are feeding when we graze. We need to feed the livestock, the soil organisms and the soil. All of that ‘wasted grass’, that a lot of producers can’t handle, is necessary. We need to feed the bugs in the soil as well as build the thatch layer. The thatch acts to the soil like our skin does for us. It covers and protects all of the internal processes. A good thatch layer helps reduce run-off and evaporation. As the thatch is broken down by the soil organisms into humus it increases the soil’s water-holding capacity. Humus acts like a sponge and can hold nine times its weight in water. Leave more residue!

Step 3: Graze for the drought. During a drought we need to adjust our graze period and rest period. Drought will cause the growth of your forage to slow down. This means your regrowth will be slower and your recovery time needs to be longer. Therefore, the graze period can be longer and the rest period needs to be longer.

Wait. How can we graze longer when there is less forage because of the drought? That’s how intensive cell grazing helps. Most of our pastures have been resting all spring because we have many paddocks per pasture. While we are grazing one, all of the other pastures are resting and growing. The standing forage in the resting paddocks helps to reduce evaporation. I still have a lot of grass in each paddock that I am grazing. We can stay longer on each paddock because we have been managing for a drought since the last one. We might not have as much grass as a normal year, but we still have enough. However, to stay longer means we are going to jeopardize step two. Step two is for every other year. In a drought, we are going to graze a lot more of the forage and leave less residue. It is more important in the drought year to extend your rest period than it is to leave residue. This is only possible if we have left a lot of residue every other year.

Here is how I look at it; when nature gives you a lot of rain, give back a lot of residue. Then on the year when we don’t get the moisture, we can take more. Nature will forgive one year of abuse, she just won’t put up with the abuse every single year. Let’s call it nature’s bank account; if you want to make a withdrawal, you need to have put in more deposits to make sure that the account stays positive. Deposit residue every year, then in a drought, you can make a withdrawal without it hurting you long term.

On my ranch, because I have made deposits every year since 2009, I have a fair bit of equity built up in my pastures. This allows me to remove more forage this year to lengthen my rest period without it hurting my forage stand for next year. All of that equity built up in my pasture also helps hold moisture this year. This means that my drought is actually not as bad as my neighbour’s drought right across the fence. More moisture held in the soil means more forage.

By allowing your animals to graze the bottom part of the plants, their individual gains might be lower. You need to weigh your options. Do you need more grazing days or more gain per animal? Which is more economical for your farm because of the drought? This year from the looks of the hay crops out there, the grazing days will be more economical for my cow herd. Proper supplementation can help mediate this issue.

Intensive cell grazing works. If you are still continuously grazing, come out and take a look. The grass really is greener on our side of the fence. Especially this year with the drought.

About the author


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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