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Grazing ‘tight and tall’

John Hibma for Progressive Forage Published on 31 May 2017
Grass-finished beef graze Connecticut pastures

Pastures provide the opportunity for farmers to feed their animals economically with homegrown forage while, at the same time, reducing environmental pollution by improving both soil and water quality.

Around the world, pastures are very much a critical element of a healthy ecosystem for both flora and fauna. Many millions of acres of arable land not well suited for growing crops such as grains or fruits and vegetables can be used as pastures to feed both ruminants and hindgut fermenters.

Just as grains, fruits and vegetables are considered crops, pasture grass should also be considered a crop and similarly managed for optimal yield and quality. Animals – whether cattle, horses, bison or deer – are the harvesters of forages grown in pastures.

The better a pasture is managed, the greater the tonnage and nutrition that will be produced. Pastures can grow anywhere there is adequate moisture, good soil and sunlight.

For the purpose of this discussion, pastures will be considered as tracts of land that can be managed well enough to supply high-quality forage through the process of intensive or rotational grazing for much of the year.

The goal of good pasture management is maximizing both the quality and the amount of forage dry matter during a growing season while maintaining or improving the quality of the soil and any adjacent sylvan or riparian habitat.

Improving the production of pastures tends to be an ongoing work in progress as a farmer or grazier learns what varieties of grasses grow best and what the stocking density of the pastures should be to optimize forage production.

Pastures fail for a variety of reasons, with overstocking and over-grazing leading the list. Even in the best growing conditions, having too many animals on a pasture will quickly result in over-grazing, which prevents the proper regrowth of grass.

As photosynthesis is diminished on an over-grazed pasture, the root system of the grass is also stressed and ultimately destroyed, resulting in the complete destruction of the pasture. The soil in a stressed pasture quickly begins to degrade as well, and the soil’s biosystem ceases to exist. The final stages of soil destruction are evident with the absence of topsoil along with significant erosion or cracked and barren earth with poor drainage.

One of the most effective ways of optimizing grass production on pastures is by dividing the pasture into small paddocks and allowing cattle to intensively graze for a day – commonly referred to as rotational grazing. After the animals have grazed a paddock, the grass must still retain plenty of leaf to adequately photosynthesize and put carbohydrates back into the root system.

A productive pasture starts with healthy soil, and the soil only remains healthy if the root system is there to support a large biosystem of organisms.

In Plainfield, Connecticut, Jennie and Dan Kapszukiewicz had been growing hay on 30-plus acres for many years.

Jennie and Dan Kapszukiewicz

In 2012, they decided it would be a more sustainable use of their land to return part of it back to pasture and began raising 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished beef. The initial plan was to rotationally graze two beef cows on 3½ acres divided into four paddocks.

They started with a popular intensive grazing model that grass should be kept short for higher protein, grazing the grass down and allowing regrowth back to 4 to 8 inches. They did that for two seasons, adding a couple of calves along the way.

What the couple found was: As the animals romped around the large paddocks, they were selectively grazing and gorging themselves with high protein and constantly trampling more of the grass than they consumed. They couldn’t keep two animals fed on 3½ acres as they were rotated about every seven days through the four paddocks. Hay had to be supplemented.

While attending a grazing conference, Jennie and Dan learned the key to a successful rotational grazing system was to graze “tight and tall.” So the same 3½ acres was then divided into 12 paddocks. They were amazed at the difference in the regrowth and how much more grass there was, as the smaller paddocks had more time to recover.

There was also a dramatic improvement in soil quality as well, whereas several years ago, when Jennie was attempting to push the pigtail hot-wire stakes into the ground when moving electric wire, she needed Dan’s help to get the stakes into the ground because the soil was so compacted. Now she has little or no problem relocating stakes as the soil has softened with the improved grass growth.

During the grazing season, the cattle are moved to a new paddock daily. The Kapszukiewiczes found creating the smaller paddocks was the key to both developing healthier soils and increasing pasture growth. Dan says the decision to let the grass grow longer actually provides a canopy shading the ground, retaining moisture in the soil which helps keep grass growing during the warmer, drier summer months.

In spite of a very hot and dry summer in Connecticut in 2016, dry matter per acre exceeded 1 ton per acre on the rotationally grazed pasture. The University of Connecticut Extension estimated during July 2016 the pasture was still producing over 3,000 pounds of dry matter per acre.

Jennie and Dan have found there is nothing wrong with allowing the grass to get long and mature. In fact, by having a portion of the grass left behind that is more mature and fibrous, the cows have the ability to self-regulate their forage selections, which enables their rumens to function better.

Jennie says back when they first started grazing, the cows had loose manure due to the low fiber in the grasses they were consuming. Dan says as the pastures become more productive, the stocking density per acre, along with the pounds of beef produced per acre, continues to improve. With the pastures remaining productive well into the autumn, the cows are finished completely on grass with no grain supplementation.

During the winter months, the herd is supplemented with hay as the pasture lies dormant. Usually in April, the grasses begin to grow again, but every year is different depending on the weather. Managing and observing the paddocks and grazing patterns of the herd is pretty much a daily chore for the couple as they monitor grass growth and move electric line from paddock to paddock.

To get the most out of the pasture, Dan and Jennie say it’s very important to keep good records of what the pastures are producing, how many days the cows are on any given paddock, and recording the temperature and rainfall.

Pasture management and herd growth are works in progress as Jennie and Dan continue to learn which varieties of forages grow best and how much tonnage they can expect to get off their pasture. In 2017, the Kapszukiewiczes will be converting more of the farmground into pasture as well as dividing it into even smaller paddocks as they continue to test the limits of pasture production.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Grass-finished beef graze Connecticut pastures, which are productive well into autumn through efficient pasture management. Photo by Jennie Kapszukiewicz.

PHOTO 2: Jennie and Dan Kapszukiewicz started with two grass-finished beef cows and turned that into 30 head by successfully rotationally grazing and managing pastures for maximum production. Photo by John Hibma.

John Hibma
  • John Hibma

  • Consulting Ruminant Nutritionist
  • South Windsor, Connecticut
  • Email John Hibma