Walker bridges research and grazing management at the annual SRM meeting
Sheridan – The relationship between research and applied management has always varied due to the many variables associated with both. Also much of the published literature on range management does not address the numerous facets of what producers worry about when making their managerial decisions.
John Walker, professor and resident director of research at Texas A&M University, spoke about range management and the science that goes along with it at the Wyoming Annual Section Meeting for the Society for Range Management (SRM) at Sheridan College in November 2013.
Research and management
“We have to have a research plan and follow that plan if we want to learn anything and if we want an ambiguous answer to the question we are trying to answer,” said Walker.
“We can’t just go do a study on one set of animals and say that applies to all of them. We want to know the variations between different experimental units, so we can infer that to other populations,” explained Walker.
He emphasized that management does not have the constraints that science does, and grazing management is the same as business management – at the end of the day, the business that runs the ranch.
Walker described grazing management as being comprised of the four areas of stocking rate, species of animals grazing, season of grazing and distribution of the grazing animals.
Walker emphasized that season of grazing and distribution have to be considered as one unit and that stocking rate is the most important factor of grazing management.
“The season of grazing can not be changed if the distribution of the livestock is not changed,” stressed Walker.
“The whole profession of range management began due to people overgrazing on rangelands,” described Walker. “We recognized the problem after we had severely degraded the ranges.”
Walker added, “Before we had an appreciation of overgrazing we didn’t really know what proper stocking rates were. Now we can argue that we do.”
The most profitable operators minimize their production costs by minimizing their feed costs – the biggest production cost, and they do that by using proper grazing management and especially by not overgrazing.
Once a piece of rangeland is overgrazed, the producer then has to buy feed.
“Variable carrying capacity is the real challenge today,” stated Walker. “Producers are now looking at how people adapt their stocking rate to the current precipitation levels. That’s the new issue.”
A management practice that can be utilized when precipitation levels are down is to vary the stocking rate of the herd.
“The producer who varies their stocking rate should be the more productive enterprise,” stated Walker.
In addition to looking at rainfall, producers also need to look at pastures.
Walker added that a producer does not need to know if there’s 2,000 pounds per acre out there or 2,500. They need to know if there is enough grass out there or if its short.
Walker explained that the carrying capacity challenge requires flexibility with stocking rates.
Studies have been conducted comparing rotational grazing to continuous grazing, and there continues to be debate among experts about which is better.
Multi-species grazing also affects the overall production for a producer.
“By adding sheep to a cattle operation, a producer can increase their overall production by 24 percent,” explained Walker. “On average, when cattle are added to a sheep production operation, the production can be increased by 10 percent.”
Walker explains the difference in the production levels is because sheep are more biologically efficient than cattle.
Also different livestock species have different dietary preferences. Cattle eat more grass, and sheep consume more forage.
“Even when sheep and cattle are on the same pasture, the sheep eat a different portion of that plant than the cattle do,” reasoned Walker. “Also, the animals utilize the typography differently. Cattle tend to hang out in the riparian areas, and the sheep go to the highest place in the pasture.”
Distribution and season
Walker’s reasoning for livestock distribution and season of grazing are closely related to the distribution of animals.
Once animals are restricted, they automatically affect the season of the land that is being grazed.
“The greatest invention that has ever affected range management is barbed wire,” stated Walker.
There are many aspects that go into managing a ranch that are never captured in a grazing study, but that information needs to be captured for those studies, which is not easy to do.
“Good grazing managers are developed from experience by reflecting on consequences of their actions to develop their intuition,” he stated.
“Sometimes producers try to make things so complicated,” declared Walker. “At the end of the day, grazing management is complicated, but producers can still do it. They don’t need Einstein and calculus to know when it is time to open the gate and move the cows.”