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Choose cell grazing for improved pasture and profit

Jesse Bussard Published on 25 March 2014

When it comes to improving pasture and rangeland health, ranch management consultant Dave Pratt says to stay away from agronomic principles and instead apply ecological principles to land management. At the recent Ranching For Profit School held Jan. 19-25 in Billings, Montana, Pratt and his associate Dallas Mount of the University of Wyoming discussed various methods to improve range health, among many other aspects of a ranch business.

"We don't need expensive technology, equipment or chemicals to improve range health," Pratt said. "We can improve our rangelands through better grazing management."

To improve range and pasture health, Pratt suggested ranchers use cell grazing. When applied properly, this style of grazing management can minimize ranch overhead costs, improve gross and maximize turnover. These actions are the three main ways any ranch business can increase profit.

It is important to note that while cell grazing utilizes a multiple paddock system, it is not rotational grazing. Cell grazing bases stocking rate, animal moves and grazing period on plant growth rate. Traditional rotational grazing consists of time-controlled, calendar-based animal moves.

According to Pratt, cell grazing consists of the application of five management principles.

Adjust recovery periods as pasture growth rates change
Growth rates of plants change throughout the year. In relation to this, the length of time required for pastures to recover also fluctuates. Therefore, period length of slow-growth rest periods (i.e. time it takes for pasture to recover from grazing) should be long. During fast growth, rest periods should be shorter.

Use short graze periods consistent with the recovery period
The selective nature of grazing livestock makes short-grazing periods advantageous to maintaining increased quality and quantity of forage while keeping animal performance within acceptable levels. Pratt says the key is to keep grazing periods short enough while providing adequate recovery time for plants.

"Eight to 10 paddocks can stop the overgrazing, but it isn't enough to get the graze periods short enough for top animal performance," he said. "At least 16 paddocks are usually needed to keep performance high."

Fluctuate the stocking rate to match changes in carrying capacity
To match stocking rate to carrying capacity, one must match the energy needs of livestock to the supply available in grazed forage. To cope with the annually and seasonally changing supply of this supplied energy, Pratt suggested creating and managing an "energy bank." This is done in three ways: putting up and feeding hay, rationing a feed bank of forage in a pasture and/or storing energy in fat on our animals.

Use the largest herd possible
A large herd allows for increased "herd effect," which, when used properly, can rejuvenate range and pasture land and kick start the succession process. Herd effect is created by concentration of livestock for very short periods of time. This activity has the potential to work up soil, break through soil crusts, help in pasture reseeding and knock back the growth of undesirable plants.

Use the highest stock density possible
Stock density is simply the number of animals in an area at one moment in time. Using high stock densities promotes more uniform grazing. While Pratt said high stock densities are best, he said he realizes this will not work everywhere. Stocking densities of 100-200 animals are not uncommon for irrigated pasture; however, this is unrealistic for rangelands.

Cell grazing is a powerful tool for managing energy flow and water and mineral cycles in pasture and range. Increased soil organic matter and improved forage production are just some of the multitude of ecological benefits this management practice can bring. Ultimately, when implemented properly, producers can expect this grazing practice to not only improve their range health but also the bottom line.  FG

Jesse Bussard is a freelancer writer based in Montana.