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Inputs are out (when it comes to managing pastures)

David Pratt for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 May 2016
Managing for improved health

Listen to some “experts” and you’d think pasture management comes out of a bag or a bottle. They’d have you spraying weeds, seeding “improved” species and spraying fertilizer to make pastures productive.

These inputs are expensive and can even be counterproductive. If the outcome you want is healthy pasture, then these inputs are out. Good management doesn’t come out of a bag or a bottle. It comes from a fence, a trough, a little common sense and a plan.

Weeds aren’t a problem

No one ever went broke because they had weeds. Weeds aren’t a problem. They are a symptom. They tell us there is something out of whack with our land. Killing the weeds will not put things right.

As a grad student decades ago, I did some research that involved identifying species present in the surface vegetation and the seed bank of rangeland communities. In the particular community sampled, I identified 27 different species in the vegetation.

There were more than 75 species in the seed bank, and there were more than 33,000 seeds per square yard. (Compare that to a typical crested wheatgrass seeding that adds 180 seeds per square yard.)

The vast majority of the seeds in the seed bank are weeds, and many remain viable for years. Yet very few of the weeds present as seeds in the soil could be found in the surface vegetation I studied. Why?

For the same reason that after a fire, you see species “invade” that hadn’t been there before. A few seeds may have been blown in from the neighbors or carried in by a critter, but it is likely that most of those seeds were already there. Until the fire, conditions hadn’t been right for them to grow.

Of course, there are cases where we unintentionally introduce weed seeds by feeding weedy hay or bringing in livestock that have been grazing weedy pastures, but for the most part those weeds won’t grow, and certainly won’t thrive, unless the community is stressed.

Too often, we focus on what we don’t want (weeds) as opposed to what we do want (healthy, productive pasture). It is easy to make a pasture weed-free … graze it into dust and pummel it daily with hooves. You don’t see many weeds growing in a feedlot pen. But is that what you want your pastures to look like? We are better off managing for what we want.

If you graze it, they will come

There are hundreds of millions of weed seeds lying just under the surface of the soil on every acre of pasture on your ranch. But there aren’t nearly as many desirable species. Most grass seeds don’t survive in the soil for more than a season. (There are some exceptions). Yet our experience on hundreds of ranches shows that when we manage for improved health, the desirable species appear.

Managing for improved health boils down to two big things: Avoid overgrazing and eliminate over-baring. Overgrazing is grazing a plant before it has recovered from the previous grazing.

It happens when we leave animals in a pasture too long or bring them back too soon. Leaving residue slows the flow of water over the surface, giving more time to soak in. It insulates the soil surface and makes a better seedbed.

Overbaring means we have grazed a pasture too severely and have left bare soil. Overbaring is a term I first heard used by George Work, a rancher in California’s central coast who improved the health of his land and dramatically increased its productivity with well-managed grazing (and without seeding, fertilizer or herbicides).

His ranch is in “the California Annual Grassland” – but you wouldn’t know it looking at his place. His pastures have a lot of perennials … lending credence to the idea that “If you graze it, they will come” … but you have to graze it and, just as important, rest it right.

How much cover we should leave varies with the season and our management needs. During periods of rapid growth, we should leave a lot behind, especially if we want to stockpile feed for winter grazing. During the dormant season, we may leave less, but that doesn’t mean we ought to slick pastures off leaving nothing behind.

The stubble we leave will catch snow and slow the flow of runoff, which will increase the amount of water that soaks into the soil. It makes for a seedbed that favors desirable forage species, and it insulates the soil. That means growth starts a little earlier and lasts a little longer, and we get more total production.

Seeding improved species can accelerate the process of change, but unless the practices that led to the absence of desirable species are changed, seeding will be a short-term fix at best and, at worst, a waste of time and money.

Addicted to fertilizer

The trifecta in the evil axis of pasture inputs is fertilizer. A hit of nitrogen is seductive. In some environments, 30 or 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre can double forage production. But there’s a cost. And the cost goes beyond the price of the fertilizer and its application.

When we apply nitrogen, it stimulates soil microbes (similar to rumen microbes in many respects), and they consume carbon (organic matter). As they consume organic matter, the soil becomes less fertile, and we become more reliant on chemical fertilizer.

When I was a student, there were farms in New Zealand using 50 to 100 units of nitrogen per acre. Today, many of those farms use more than 400 units per acre. That’s not reliant … that’s addicted.

Agriculturally insane

A lot of people define insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Whether we spray or seed or spread to mask the symptom of poor pasture health, if we don’t change the management that created the poor health, no amount of spraying, seeding or spreading is going to help.  end mark

As owner of Ranch Management Consultants, Inc., Dave Pratt is a speaker and respected authority on sustainable ranching. Dave’s new book is called Healthy Land Happy Families and Profitable Businesses. For more information, visit Ranching for profit

PHOTO: Managing for improved health boils down to two big things: Avoid overgrazing and eliminate over-baring. Staff photo

David Pratt
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  • Ranch Management Consultants Inc.
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