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10 guiding facts in grazing management, not grazing ‘systems’

Tim Steffens for Progressive Cattleman Published on 27 June 2016
cow in pasture

Many people think there is something magical about moving animals from paddock to paddock that makes animals perform well and keeps grass healthy. But both faster improvements and more spectacular disasters are possible with more, smaller paddocks per herd.

Forgetting the basics of grazing management will break any grazing “system.” The following grazing facts will help you make correctly adapted management for higher forage and beef production, and greater profitability.

1. Severe defoliation (generally, greater than about 50 percent of leaf material) decreases a plant’s root mass and leaf area, and therefore, its ability to compete with defoliated neighbors. Doing this repeatedly makes the effects worse.

2. Unfortunately, animals do not understand the concept of “take half, leave half.” The number of animals per unit area and the length of time they are present determines the average grazing intensity. However, it does nothing to stop heavy use of preferred plants or allow them to recover afterward. So it is up to you to manage the grazing.

3. Timing and frequency of grazing are also important. Grazing after grasses elevate their growing points is generally most harmful, while dormant season grazing is less critical.

4. Plants need to regrow leaves after grazing. The length of the recovery period is dependent on timing and severity of the defoliation and growing conditions. So how long the recovery period should last will vary within and among years.

5. Sometimes, just letting grazed plants recover isn’t enough – we need to increase the density of palatable plants. The length of time required for germination and establishment may be relatively short in moister environments, but limited rainfall and short, erratic growth periods in drier areas may require much longer between grazing periods. Longer deferral prepares plant communities to respond quicker to unusual favorable conditions.

6. Grazing animals do not use landscapes evenly. They will search intensely over large areas for palatable plants, and often, repeatedly defoliate them if allowed. Areas of heavy use often degrade and then enlarge as they lose productivity or less desirable plants invade and no longer meet animal requirements.

7. Even if you move livestock among more and smaller pastures, if you don’t change when, where, how many, how often or how long they use different areas to allow full recovery of grazing plants, you won’t make much progress.

8. Nutrient intake over time is determined by the quality and quantity of forage available for that period of time. Animals can mix plants of differing quality to try to meet their requirements, and normally consume a higher quality diet than the average of the plant community available to them, if given the opportunity for selection.

9. Therefore, the quantity, quality and diversity of plants in and among paddocks must allow enough selection and intake to meet performance goals. A high density of animals in small paddocks doesn’t always equate to more intense use any more than driving faster always means you go further – it depends on how long you drive. Rate of forage disappearance may be faster, but you can stop anytime. If the grazing period gets even shorter than the pasture size decreases, you can decrease the average level of use.

10. If animals use more of the landscape or learn to select a greater variety of plants, and those plants are given enough recovery between grazing to maintain or improve vigor, stocking rate can be increased.

When things don’t go as anticipated, these guiding facts can help you adjust your actions appropriately. Remember, more paddocks per herd increases operational flexibility, but sound decisions determine the outcome of an adaptive grazing management strategy.  end mark

Tim Steffens is an assistant professor of rangeland resource management for West Texas A&M University Department of Agricultural Sciences. He is also a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension specialist. Email Tim Steffens.

PHOTO: A high density of animals in small paddocks doesn't always equate to more intense use. Staff photo.

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