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Grazing management: The essence of ranching

cattle grazing

Cattle are unique: they came to us as creatures capable of grazing; as ruminants with the ability to convert roughage to energy; and, ultimately, energy to protein. Grazing is how ranches create value. Grazing management is maintaining the balance between soil health, plant growth, sunlight, and moisture on rangeland. The amount of effective moisture — moisture available to plants — is highly manageable.

This month’s article is a compilation of gems collected from a series of articles about grazing and pasture management; articles written and published by academics, range consultants and those who harvest grass for a living.

Manage for what you want, not what you don’t want. Early season grasses like crested wheat and Kentucky blue become less desirable for cattle once they mature. Subjecting these grasses to early grazing pressure, rather than trying to eliminate them, keeps the species in check so they don’t crowd more palatable grasses that follow.

Plant diversity is beneficial. Variety increases the amount of forage cattle graze while keeping the natural ecosystem in check. In the view of some ranchers: “Even if it’s considered a weed, as long as the cows eat it and it’s not toxic, it can be beneficial.”

Availability and location of water is a huge factor in how land gets split.

Grass farmer first, beef producer second. Splitting pastures and managing how they are grazed can nearly double grazing capacity. Delaying turnout on grass until pastures have roughly six to eight inches of growth and encouraging cattle to graze fresh growth rather than trampling down taller, older forage helps extend the grazing season. If in doubt: take half, leave half.

Rotate, let it grow, rotate, let it grow… There is no magic answer to rotational grazing. Rotational grazing is about better forage utilization so spring pastures are not under-grazed and summer pastures overgrazed.

The process of sectioning larger pieces of land into smaller paddocks and adopting rotational grazing eases pressure to promote new forage growth. Healthier stands result.

Delay spring grazing. Early spring grazing affects season-long forage yields unless managed carefully. Grazing native range before the third-leaf stage can reduce carrying capacity up to 50 per cent. Early grazing on improved pastures can reduce carrying capacity by 10 to 30 per cent. Typically, turnout on native range should be delayed until the heights of key forage species are at least four to six inches (end of May, first part of June). While native, warm-season tall grasses can benefit from early season grazing, waiting for warm-season tall-grass species to reach the third-leaf stage, or about 10 inches in plant height, is recommended.

Time and timing. Time and timing of grazing reduces overgrazing; neglecting either affects plant vigour, recruitment of new plants, and ecosystem improvement. Basic ecosystem processes require water, nutrients, sunlight, and a system of biological succession. Improving any one of these elements starts a chain of events that involves them all.

Good grazing is a catalyst for efficiency. Good grazing reduces feed costs, increases grass and forage production, reduces labour and equipment costs, and increases land productivity. Overall, it enables more cows to be kept without adding land. Carrying capacity can be created “cheaper” by using fences and water than by buying land.

Though interactions of production, environment and economics are complex, incorporating practices that include incorporation of ecosystem health in day-to-day management of the ranch work helps everyone. Bottom line: those in the beef industry need to ensure all efforts are positive.

Livestock producers often focus on “productivity per cow” and forget that “revenue per acre” is paramount. The intensive selection for growth hasn’t done much to improve ranch profitability over the last 50 years. In fact, it could be argued that in constant dollars or buying power, profit per acre has decreased.

Remember: fertilizer pays. Research has shown one pound of additional calf or yearling gain for every pound of nitrogen fertilizer applied to improved pastures. Efficiently harvesting extra growth through grazing management is fundamental.

Understanding concepts around overgrazing. While animal numbers can accelerate overgrazing, it’s not always numbers that count. Overgrazing is best defined as the failure to move or rotate animals in harmony with forage growth. Proper grazing management is a matter of moving animals before they have the opportunity to re-graze the lush growth after plants have been browsed. Unfortunately, grazing animals don’t utilize grass and forages equally. By instinct, they eat palatable grasses to the ground, while unpalatable plants are left untouched. In time, the cycle has a deleterious effect on plant diversity, soil quality and moisture utilization.

Evaluate stands of alfalfa and ways of utilizing it in grazing programs. Legumes can play a huge role in maintenance of dairy and beef herds. Alfalfa, the most productive and versatile forage legume grown in Canada, has the highest yield potential and feeding value of all perennial forage legumes. Alfalfa’s value increases as we learn to incorporate it into season-long grazing strategies. Managing the potential risk bloat alfalfa presents is a critical reason it hasn’t been more widely incorporated into spring and summer grazing programs.

Approval of products like Alfasure in 2011 and its availability through veterinary clinics without prescription presents a significant opportunity for cattle producers to recapture the benefits of grazing alfalfa.

Alfasure changed paradigms around bloat prevention on legume pasture. Cattle grazing alfalfa can achieve pasture weight gains exceeding 1,000 pounds (453 kg) per acre (1,120 kg per hectare). Under irrigation, production yields of 1,370 pounds of beef per acre (1,555 kg per hectare) have been reported. Typically, yearlings grazing quality grass gain approximately 1.5 pounds per head per day, while cattle grazing alfalfa (with Alfasure) gain 2.5 pounds per head per day — production levels comparable to those achieved in feedlots. Grazing pure alfalfa stands has the potential to more than double net farm income generated from mixed grass-legume pasture.

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).



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