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Sketching out the ideal: Planning for the grazing season

Melissa Beck for Progressive Forage Published on 30 January 2019
Cattle grazing

Grazing management requires planning for the future and acting in the present. Planning is integral to success. Set goals for the operation, evaluate current assets, and then sketch out a plan to reach your goals.

John Jennings, a professor at University of Arkansas says, “You really need to plan at least 30 to 60 days ahead of grazing to prepare pastures to start producing early and with optimum production.” To get the most out of your forages, identify weeds and decide how you’re going to control those and make adjustments to fertility.

Jennings says, “How grass grows is based in science; how you utilize it is all personal preference.” Jennings’ 300 Days of Grazing extension program has helped producers from across the U.S. extend their grazing season and reduce reliance on hay, as well as reducing input costs in many cases.

The five steps to implementing the 300 Days of Grazing Program are:

  1. Conduct a forage inventory to determine base forages and periods of limited forage or gaps in forage availability.

  2. Identify management practices to increase seasonal grazing, such as rotational grazing, stockpiling, overseeding and fertilization strategies.

  3. Include complementary forages to address gaps in forage availability.

  4. Plan forage programs for the entire year.

  5. Monitor and adjust forage production, supplementation and stocking rates as needed.

To create a flexible plan, it is essential to understand your available resources. The big-picture perspective considers the land and its features, the plants available and those that can be added to the existing forage base to extend grazing or increase diet quality, as well as the animals and their production goals and nutrient requirements.

Chase Groves, owner of Rocking CK Farms in Garland, Arkansas, custom grazes cattle on 600 acres. Groves recommends making improvements temporary until you’re sure they’re going to fit your program.

“I learned you just have to live with permanent fencing and water lines, even when they don’t work for your pastures, until you have time or can afford to replace them; flexibility is key.” With temporary water lines and fencing, Groves is able to keep grazing cattle within 300 feet of the water source in any pasture.

Groves learned about sketching the ideal pasture setup from his time as a field representative for the American Simmental Association. “I spent a lot of time on other people’s places, and I noticed the nice spreads, the things that worked and what to do and what not to do.” Groves says, “I do a lot of drawing and scratching, and copy what I see other people doing that works. I talk to people, and I ask a lot of questions.”

Mark and Annette Thomas of TLC Grassfed Beef in Enid, Oklahoma, pasture finish calves on their 100 percent forage-based operation. Their outfit is certified animal welfare approved and certified grass-fed by A Greener World. All of their nearly 500 acres are dryland and require planning and flexibility since they don’t feed any grain and rely heavily on the unpredictable Oklahoma rainfall to produce forage for their cattle.

Mark says, “Our practices are all about reducing animal stress and regenerating the land. We utilize a combination of native grass pastures along with summer and winter annual forages that are no-till planted. We rotate cattle through pastures and paddocks depending on the seasonal forages available. The pastures are 160-acre quarters like most in our area, the big difference are the miles of poly wire and pigtail post with solar chargers separating the paddocks. When forages are growing slowly, we have larger paddocks and slower moves; during the growing seasons, the paddocks get smaller with more rapid moves. Our grazing system is adaptive to the seasons and types of plants being grazed.”

Annette says, “When it comes to our grazing forage system, we’ve shifted our focus to not just thinking about the cattle, but focusing on soil health. We ask ourselves, ‘How can we use animals in conjunction with plants to benefit the soil?’ We do things like leave adequate residue and ground cover, plant annuals to increase diversity and look at long-term ways to improve productivity.”

Once you know the present condition of your pastures, you can develop a plan to improve or capitalize on the forage available that will help you reach your grazing goals. Mark says, “Planning your forage chain is the most important part. Figuring out what forages work best in your part of the world and knowing when to get them planted are crucial. There are a lot of variables, and in northwest Oklahoma, you are always preparing for the next drought. Pay close attention to the soil and growing conditions; the land will tell you what it wants to grow.

“We have had to make some improvements to every property to adapt to rotational grazing as well as movement of cattle. In some circumstances, permanent fencing and corrals were needed for movement or fenceline weaning.” Mark says, “Our other investments have been in solar pumps and wells. We don’t have irrigation systems or a big aquifer to pump from. However, we can hit good water with efficient volume for livestock with a 100-foot well, making this a better option than running pipe or hauling water.”

Annette says they use different pastures in different seasons to take advantage of landscape features that serve as wind breaks in winter or shade in summer.

The Thomases use a forage budget to plan for their herd’s requirements. “It’s really a simple equation,” Annette says. “We look at the number of head, our production goals and the NRC nutrient requirements of our cattle in the different stages of production to help us plan six to nine months out, then we make adjustments based on our rainfall.” TLC tests their forages to ensure they meet the nutritional requirements of their cattle in their various stages of production.

High-quality forages, such as alfalfa, are used at key times like weaning and finishing if forages don’t provide the needed nutrition. “We don’t let our cattle go backward; it’s expensive to lose body condition on cows, and if our calves don’t consistently gain, it affects their ability to finish.”

Mark says, “We have made plenty of mistakes, and like most farmers and ranchers, we generally do this year what we should have done last year. Probably the biggest mistake we made was trying to raise too many cattle on the land resource. Our annual crop acres are more forgiving than overstocked native grass. Fortunately, by adjusting our numbers and implementing rotational grazing on the native grass, we are correcting that.”

Planning is important to the success of any grazing program, but flexibility is also essential because of the variables that can impact forage production. A grazier’s job is sketching out the ideal, then dealing with the reality of the situation presented.  end mark

PHOTO: Finishing cattle graze on Tetraprime Italian ryegrass with kochia and clovers mixed at TLC Grassfed Beef. Photo provided by Mark Thomas.

Melissa Beck is a freelance writer based in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Email Melissa Beck