Grazing Management - Focus on the BasicsWritten by Dallas Mount
With the green grass starting to show up, most livestock producers are anxious to get their stock off of the hay pile and out on the land.
As you turn out this year, I want to share a few things for you to keep in mind regarding your grazing program. The following suggestions apply primarily to upland, non-irrigated rangeland sites.
Spring is generally the most detrimental time to graze cool season grasses, especially when those plants are preparing to make a seed head and in the process of seed-stalk elongation. From April to generally mid-June, our cool season plants are in a period of rapid growth. The vast majority of the entire year’s production on upland sites will occur during these months.
Grazing pressure during these critical months should be focused on rangeland in good condition and for short periods of time.
The rule of thumb is “don’t graze the same pasture at the same time every year.” This rule is especially true for spring grazing. Rotate the time of grazing so each spring cattle are in a different pasture during this critical period for the grass.
If you absolutely cannot graze cattle in a different rotation each year, adjust the duration and intensity of grazing in the pastures. Shorten the period cattle are in the pasture and allow the plants to fully recover before being grazed again. Often this will mean not until the next growing season.
The more times an individual grass plant is grazed without the opportunity to recover, the less likely that plant is to thrive and survive in the system. On most upland sites in Wyoming, a good goal is to have each desirable plant grazed once during the growing season.
If subjected to frequent grazing, those desirable plants will become less vigorous and eventually die out, being replaced by less desirable plants. You can control this by having the right sized pastures, the right number of animals per pasture and managing access to water or herding.
I realize one grazing per growing season might be a difficult pill to swallow, but steps toward achieving that goal will provide incremental benefits as well.
After killing frost, another grazing may be taken with little cost to the plant’s health.
Many grazing management programs focus mainly on intensity of grazing, meaning how much of this year’s growth was harvested by the grazing animals. While grazing intensity is part of how animals affect plants in my opinion, this is way over emphasized.
If plants are allowed to fully recover after grazing and we can reduce the number of times an individual plant is grazed during a season, then we can be less concerned about grazing intensity. However, we do need to recognize that if we graze pastures severely, it will usually take longer for that pasture to recover.
Also, if we are not able to manage frequency of grazing well, then we need to be more cognizant of managing the intensity of grazing.
Develop a monitoring program
Knowing the effects you are having on rangeland condition is difficult unless there is some type of rangeland monitoring program in place. This can be as simple as a set of photo points that can be returned to in later years to evaluate the health of a pasture. These photos need to look down, as well as across, the range.
There is an excellent description of how to establish these in the Wyoming Rangeland Monitoring Guide or a video on the process can be found at youtu.be/JdtAExrzJtY.
A benefit of monitoring include more information for management, but monitoring has also proven very useful when working with a variety of agencies regarding grazing permits or threats from outside groups. Good information about the impacts your grazing management has on your land provides a leg up on anyone making arbitrary claims.
Putting these pieces together in your grazing plan will help you get the most from your ranch while protecting your ranch’s economic engine – the forage base.