Remember the R’s! Easy to remember grazing principles
One simple way to keep the best of the grazing principles in mind is to remember the r’s. That includes Rotate, Rest, and Recover, along with proper stocking Rates and maintaining healthy Root systems. In this blog post we will discuss one of the R’s, Recover.
Both plant leaves and roots need time to recover after grazing
There’s a natural need for rest and recovery, whether it involves what people do to stay healthy or the steps grazing managers take for healthy grasslands and soils.
When you undergo a surgical procedure, your doctor will prescribe rest to help you recover. If you get too active too quickly, you’re likely to aggravate your injury, have
a setback and extend the re- covery time. The same thing happens with plants that are
Recovered, Graze Ready
Ranchers and farmers with experience in rotational graz- ing learn to recognize when plants are fully recovered and ready to graze again. In gen- eral, that’s when your desired grass species are at the 41⁄2 leaf stage, and about 8 inches tall. How long that recovery takes depends on soils, soil moisture, time of year, spe- cies, how short it was grazed, and other factors.
Breaking a rule
In the spring, when plants are just beginning to grow, they’re extremely susceptible to overgrazing. Grazing too hard, too short early in the year can set back growth
for the entire season. So in most cases, you really want to avoid grazing hard in the spring. On the other hand, you can intentionally over- graze if you have unwanted species you want to try to push out while you encour- age desirable species. You may want to graze bromegrass and Kentucky bluegrass pastures hard early in the spring––they green up earlier than native cool season grasses. Then, rotate livestock out. The more
open canopy and reduced competition can allow more desirable native, warm season species to grow and mature before they are grazed.
Recovery after a drought
Grasslands—the plants and the soils and biology below them—can be severely chal- lenged with drought. They need more rest and recovery time than normal—don’t expect full performance or production the year after a drought. It’s more important than ever to rest pastures after a drought so you can keep plants taller, to develop deeper roots and continue to recover.
“Rotational grazing has worked great for us. We’ve been doing daily moves,
just trying to better manage what the cows are eating and manage the grass, give it an opportunity to recover. You see how the more you move the cows, the better the cows stay in condition, the better the grass and the ground stays in condition. It’s enhanced our profitability.
– John Shubeck Centerville, SD
It’s just as important to allow roots time to recover after grazing, especially during a drought, as it is to give plant leaves time to regrow and recover. grazed before they have time to fully recover. When pastures are repeat- edly grazed without time to fully recover, roots don’t get the nutrients they need from photosynthesis, and they begin to shrink. As the roots are weakened, the plant is weakened. It’s a down- ward spiral that results in eventual plant death or the plant being overtaken by less desirable species.
Recovery time will vary across the ranch. Grasses on uplands will typically
be slower to recover than the wetter riparian areas; recovery will take longer during and after a drought, too. Expect well-managed grasslands with healthy soils to recover more quickly.
Electric fences make daily cattle moves quick and easy on John Shubeck’s farm.
Rate Match livestock numbers to available forage for higher profits
One of the basics—some would argue the most im- portant basic for a profitable grazing operation—is using a livestock stocking rate that matches the available forage in a pasture. Stocking rate— animals per acre or animal liveweight per acre—is the number of animals on the entire grazing unit for a certain period of time. Figuring stocking rates doesn’t have to be complex. You just need to recognize the capacity of the land- scape to provide forage for the length of time you plan to graze, and how many animals will be grazing. It’s also important to be ready to adapt with weather condi- tions. As you plan stocking rates, recognize all animals are not equal, nor are all landscapes.
Estimate the landscape’s capacity
Go online to the NRCS Web Soil Survey, and in just a few clicks you can outline your land area, find the soil types, and get a rating for the pounds per acre that soil type could be expected to produce in a normal, favor- able, or unfavorable (dry) year. Talk with NRCS. They can explain the differences in stocking rates, stock den- sity, carrying capacity, and the other grazing concepts, and they’ll help you develop an entire grazing manage- ment plan, if you request it, at no cost.
Calculate the stocking rate
Once you have an idea of your particular pasture’s ability to produce forage, you can calculate the stocking rate that pasture can support. Stocking rate is generally calculated in animal unit months per acre. An animal unit month is the amount of forage required for a 1,000-pound cow with calf up to weaning weight for one month. That cow and calf is an animal unit—a 1500-pound cow would be 1.5 animal units, 600-pound stockers are 0.6 animal units, and a sheep is about 0.2 animal units.
To calculate stocking rates, multiply total animal units by the length of your grazing season, and divide your acres of pasture by that figure. Example: You have 200 head of 1,000 lb. cows (200 animal units) x 6 months grazing season = 1,200 AUMs forage demand. 3,000 acres to meet that demand suggests that your land’s carrying capacity would be at least 0.4 AUMs/acre to supply adequate forage for the 6-month grazing season. Depending on your location and climate, that scenario may or may not be work- able– an NRCS conserva- tion planner or rangeland management specialist
can help determine if you are working with realistic figures.
Boost stocking rates and soil health with rotations
Ranchers have long known that season-long continuous grazing on a pasture can de- grade the pasture, especially in a drought. A livestock performance simulation by South Dakota State Univer- sity in 2018 showed, though, that multi-paddock grazing allows for much higher stocking rates without such serious degradation, be- cause grazing on any one pasture is for a short time and adequate rest time is allowed for recovery before re-grazing. The study shows that as stocking rates are increased, profitability of multiple paddock grazing in rota- tion— even with high costs to develop those systems— is significantly higher than from continuous grazing. Some ranchers have dou- bled stocking rates in 10 to 15 years by using temporary fencing and water with 2 to 3 day moves. They get a better look at their cows, the cows have new feed every few days, and their high density, low duration rotation offers more even grazing of all the plants in the pasture. In addition, that management approach develops plant diversity and feeds soil microbes, result- ing in healthier soils that infiltrate rainfall, with more resiliency in a drought. “We’ve gone from the original fifteen pastures to thirty pastures ranging from 25 to 40 acres. When we’re finished we’ll have over 60 pastures. We’ll have 50 miles of electric fence when we’re all set up. We’ve learned the opti- mum grazing time for us is three to five days, followed by 750 days of rest. We don’t go back in the rest of that grazing season, or the next year, and then that third year, we try to shift the season of use. It’s worked for us. An NRCS inventory in 2007 showed our upland fields were producing 400 to 600 pounds per acre per year. Now, those same fields are producing 2,100 to 2,800 pounds per acre per year.”