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Grazing for Biodiversity

By   /  May 23, 2016  /  3 Comments

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Biodiversity in your pastures provides many benefits to pasture productivity, soil health, animal performance, and wildlife habitat. The table below shows typical composition of our home pastures on our old Missouri farm.

Jim Gerrish Pasture Species

There were many other less plentiful species present that are not listed. Nine different plant functional groups are represented in these pastures with 40+ individual species.The main point I wanted to make was the functional diversity of the pasture. A good mixture of cool-season and warm-season species, annuals as well as perennials, and grasses and legumes.

WyomingGrazingSchoolsquareMuch of this pasture started out as predominantly endophyte-infected tall fescue. While we did overseed legumes into the pasture, all the other species appeared in response to the grazing management we imposed. Aggressive grazing in the Spring followed by longer summer recovery periods was the approach we used to change the composition. Fescue is an aggressive, dominating grass only if you allow it to be. Every third year we stockpiled 1/3rd of the farm for winter grazing and that allowed the legumes and annual grasses to go to seed.

We began doing daily rotation of both our cattle and sheep in 1988. Putting a heavy grazing impact on the tall fescue base in the Spring and early Summer is what allowed the pastures to flourish with diversity.

Pasture Example Jim Gerrish

We relied on legume N-fixation, high stock density grazing, and building organic matter to provide the nitrogen required for grass production. In 23 years on that farm, we used N fertilizer on limited pastures a total of three occasions. N fertilizer is not at all necessary to have high producing pastures.

Legumes in Jim Gerrish Pasture

JimOnAJumpDriveEditors Note: We like Jim’s approach to adding biodiversity to his pasture because the cost is so low, unless you consider the brain power it takes to look at what we have and then figure out the steps for using our livestock to get where we want to go. We’d love to hear about how you changed your pastures with your management. Your examples might be just what another reader needs to make improvements at his or her own place. Drop us a line, or add your thoughts below! Thanks!

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About the author

Jim Gerrish is the author of "Management-Intensive Grazing: The Grassroots of Grass Farming" and "Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-around Grazing" and is a popular speaker at conferences around the world. His company, American GrazingLands Services LLC is dedicated to improving the health and sustainable productivity of grazing lands around the world through the use of Management-intensive Grazing practices. They work with small farms, large ranches, government agencies and NGO's to promote economically and environmentally sustainable grazing operations and believe healthy farms and ranches are the basis of healthy communities and healthy consumers. Visit their website to find out more about their consulting services and grazing management tools, including electric fencing, stock water systems, forage seed, and other management tools.

3 Comments

  1. Frank Egan says:

    G’day, down here in Aussie,there is also strong resistance to the idea of not adding a “bag to the acre” of Super every two years to maintain fertility (plus the profits of the fert company’s).In the main, stock movement is controlled by “permanent fencing”,rather than electric due to the costs involved in hired labor,and ever diminishing margins from livestock enterprises.In 2008 we completely changed our management for our meat sheep farm,in one trial we subdivided a 40 ac paddock into 3 main paddocks and set aside a small area(about 3 acs) of a rocky outcrop which had “never” had the plough over it as it contained a large number of remnant Native and introduced species,both C3 and C4’s. The 3 main grazing areas all radiated from this central point.Allowing this small area to set seed for a number of years “without” grazing meant that seed was carried into the adjoining areas by wind,water and wildlife.We now graze this paddock at “non-critical times” to increase the overall fertility of the area.

  2. Ron Sealock says:

    Our approach and results have been very similar to that which Jim described. In addition, we have had to invest in pastures that are converted from cropland by spreading manure from our wintering backgrounding operation in order to catalyze improvement on that ground. Areas that did not receive manure application for various reasons just have not responded as well to the grazing management. Its important to note that the manure applications are an investment, not an annual expense.
    One problem we have had is that the edges of our pastures that border other pastures that get aerial sprayed every year have noticeably poorer production. You have to search pretty hard for forbs in those areas.

  3. John Marble says:

    Hi Jim.

    I was struck by your simple analysis that “N fertilizer is not at all necessary to have high producing pastures”. I have followed a similar pathway as you have described here and my results have been much the same. Still, resistance to this kind of thinking is huge. Even though I can do the math (predicting the cost of dry matter produced per $ spent on N) or show the results of managed grazing (highly productive, diverse pastures), most folks just don’t want to see it. It would help if the Land Grant professors and Extension folks could look up from their industry-sponsored bibles or perhaps take a basic business or ecology course. My local agent recently told a group of producers that their pastures would just “poop out” if they didn’t add proper fertilizer each year. Smart girl, but 30 years at the university has sure made it hard for her to be objective.

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