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Ten Steps to Better Grasslands and Pastures

By   /  March 30, 2015  /  3 Comments

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Grasslands photo courtesy of wikipedia

Grasslands photo courtesy of wikipedia

As an extension educator at the county level, I read a lot of publications about the use and management of pasture and hay resources. My clients read the same publications and many still hesitate to try new grazing practices. Producers often believe a new practice will not work for them. Many farmers get enamored by how their farm is different and how their limited resources will prevent them from implementing everything the speaker or author recommends. I understand their hesitation; after all it’s their farm and their money on the line.

How do we move forward and help skeptical farmers better manage their grassland resources? How do we generalize the vast volumes of research and give good advice? With my clients I promote the process not the practice. Basically I advocate a process of rethinking what you do, what you need, and how you manage your grasslands. I developed and published a 10 step process to better grasslands in my local newsletter and I think this process will work for just about everyone.

1. Grass first management

You can only produce the amount of livestock your land resources can support. Think grass first.

It seems obvious but in a grass based production system, the primary limitation you face is the amount of forage you can produce. I call this realization grass first management. Before you allocate resources to barns, tractors, or breeding stock, you should figure out how to maximize your ability to grow forages. Understanding the fundamental importance of your forage resources is what this is all about. Simply put, if you can feed 10 percent more cattle per unit of grassland you can make 10 percent more money. If you want to expand your farm enterprise think grass first and expand your forage resources first.

2. Develop a forage management plan

Troy is a contract grazier himself, raising replacement heifers for a local dairy.

Every year Troy Bishopp, the Grass Whisperer, puts up free grazing charts to help you with your forage management. Click here to go to the article where you can download them.

Identify the resources you have, the changes you want to make, and the capitol you can invest in making those changes. Commit yourself to the planning process.

Developing a plan, any plan, is vital to making successful changes. I tell producers all the time to “run” the numbers. If you can make it work on paper it may work, but if it will not work on paper, it never will. Treat your grasslands like an asset, no different than a certificate of deposit or a share of stock. Producers need to examine their return from each asset. Ask questions like what is a reasonable expected return. Identify underperforming resources and look for grazing practices that address the specific shortcoming you identify in your grasslands. Plan your path to success.

3. Management intensive grazing / rotational grazing

Implement a more intensive forage management strategy to maximize the utility of your forage resources.

At the heart of most successful forage management plans, particularly in West Virginia, is the use of management intensive or rotational grazing. Start with practical changes and temporary fence. The last thing you want to do is build 20 miles of new fence only to realize your paddocks are the wrong size and the water troughs are in the wrong place. Utilize state and federal programs to add infrastructure reduce costs. Work the concept. Keep pushing the envelope to find out how intense you can manage your grasslands, how many head your resources can support, and what works for you.

4. Soil sample

happy-dirty-kid

We wrote an article for you on a great way to take the drudgery out of collecting samples for soil testing. Click here to see it!

Fall is the best time to soil sample. Fall sampling gives you more time to plan additions and make substantive changes.

Soil sample, soil sample, soil sample! Every decision is easier if you understand your fertility levels. I feel it is important to not just know but understand your fertility levels. At a minimum, you need to know the pH of your soil and the P and K soil test levels. From time to time it’s a good idea to test for micro nutrients, soil organic matter, and other macro nutrients known to be deficient in your area. Why make guesses about what your grasslands need when it is so easy to sample your soils.

5. Fertilize

Feed your pasture and hay ground to increase production.

Fertilize your grasslands. Fertilize can be seeding in legumes, adding manure from feeding areas, bringing in nutrients from off site, or buying and applying commercial fertilizers. Develop a comprehensive nutrient management plan and follow it. Track the production and replace nutrients lost as pounds of animals sold or as hay removed. Evaluate the economics of additions. Is the potential gain from stockpiling fescue worth the cost of fertilizer? Realize that continual removal of nutrients as pounds of animals or hay is not sustainable without developing some plan to address fertility.

6. Targeted feeding

Let your round bale feeder be your fertilizer truck.

Targeted feeding is a simple tool to reallocate nutrients across your farm. Basically feed harvested hay in locations where fertility levels and productivity are known to be lower. This technique can preserve sensitive ground from hoof damage and redistribute nutrients to areas with low fertility. Rotate feeding locations to prevent brown spots, and return more frequently to poorer producing sections of pastures and hay fields.

7. Manage weeds

This calf is eating musk thistle, just like her mom taught her to do.

Kathy spends a lot of time telling folks how nutritious weeds are AND that you can teach your livestock to eat them! If you haven’t read any of her articles on this yet, click for an opportunity to see them.

Address emerging problems before you need to spray an entire field or farm.

Weeds don’t generally move into a field overnight, and sadly, you can’t get rid of them overnight either. Define what you consider a weed. Figure out why the weed is successful. Weeds can “move in” because your graze to close, or not close enough. Your problem with weeds could be related to stocking rates, pH, or lazy neighbors. Just remember to continually work on weeds. Don’t let weeds go to seed. Control weeds by mowing, grazing, and spraying. Get in front of the weed problems on your farm, and stay there!

8. Learn from others

Attend workshops, seminars, and other talks.

Listen to what the “experts” are saying and look for elements you can use or try at home. There are no exact sizes or styles of grassland management plans. One size fits nobody! A good plan is site specific, one you believe in, and draws on multiple sources of information. Look for new and better ideas every day. Specifically look for new solutions to the problems you have been unable to correct.

9. Think outside the grazing box

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and try new things.

Be bold but cautious. Don’t get locked into doing something a particular way. Question why some things work and others fail. Always ask yourself “why do I do this?” Develop the ability to look past traditional methods and accepted norms. Become an early adopter. Innovate, experiment, and investigate. Work with and through your local supporting agencies.

10. Farm maintenance

Fence building at Snyder Farm, photo courtesy of Rutgers University.

Fence building at Snyder Farm, photo courtesy of Rutgers University.

Consider farm maintenance as a part of your grassland management plan.

Building fence, fixing fence, cleaning water troughs, checking fence chargers, sprayers, and spreaders is more important than you realize. Nothing will derail a rotation faster than a blown charger or an empty water trough. It is difficult to moving cattle if you spend your days chasing cattle from your neighbor’s farm. It’s hard to stockpile fescue when you can’t keep the cows out. How can you spread manure as described in your nutrient management plan when the spreader has been broken for two years?

So you think you’re ready to take forage production to the next level?

If you follow this process and work your way through these ten steps to improve you grassland resources, you will find the grazing paradigm that fits your fields, your farm, and you. At the end of the day the goal is to produce more with fewer inputs, fewer environmental losses, and reasonable expectations. So use the process to figure out if the practice you need is to stock pile fescue, frost seed legumes, plant summer annuals, or switch to year -round grazing. Completing this process will help you discover how to maximize the return from your grassland assets and reach the goals you set in your forage management plan.

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About the author

I am the head of the GIS Department and Assistant Professor of GIS at Northern Virginia Community College. I am a scientist. I love data, discovery, and problem solving. I am a bit of a water quality expert. My academic background is in the natural sciences. I am a PhD candidate at West Virginia University where I am studying phosphorus movement and modeling and agriculture. I have degrees in Agriculture, Animal Science, Soil Science, and Public Administration. I am an experienced Agriculture and Natural Resources extension educator / county Agent and author of multiple articles and publications. I have served as a local resource to assist in the identification and resolution of any agricultural and natural resources issues. I have developed agricultural and natural resources related programming to support the people of the county, the state, and the nation.

3 Comments

  1. Dan Nosal says:

    Michael, thanks for the article and info. To answer your question: “How do we move forward and help skeptical farmers better manage their grassland resources?” I think we (agency and academia folks) need to utilize the knowledge of progressive out-of-the-box thinking ranchers who are already doing it the right way. They are the true “experts” because they are actually doing it. Skeptical ranchers who say “it can’t be done on my place” are more likely to listen to other ranchers who are already doing it in their area.

  2. Meg Bishop says:

    Michael Harman definitely hit the high points in the article “Ten Steps to Better Grasslands and Pasture.” I did feel it necessary, however, to comment on Step 5, “Fertilize.” As Mr. Harman pointed out, economics are certainly an important consideration. Another important consideration involves the presence of weeds or undesirable species in the pasture. First, that is usually a symptom of a grazing management strategy that may need to be adjusted (timing, duration, intensity). Second, if grazing management scenarios are not adjusted, fertilization may just help weeds/undesirable species to get the upper hand. Lastly, not all grazing lands are created equal. Here in the arid West on native range, for example, fertilization is usually not recommded (outside of a harrowing following grazing), since it does run the risk of fertilizing undesirables/weeds. Bottom line, if a producer is considering the option of fertilization, it may be wise to discuss options with local professionals to optimize regional potentials.

    • Michael Harman says:

      Meg, as I said it should work for just about everyone. Clearly in arid environments grazing and forage management is very different from back east. However remember this is a process approach and it will work best when you follow through on all ten steps, and part if that would be “shopping around” for ideas that will work for you. I appreciate your comments, and freely admit my introspective view on grazing and grassland management is skewed strongly towards Appalachia. Again thanks, it’s nice to know people take the time to think about what we write.

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