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Setting Up an Intensive Grazing System That Works – Pasture Recovery Periods

Pasture Recovery Period Considerations or “Building the Dance Hall

Cattle on irrigated pasture in Colorado. Photo courtesy of the NRCS via Wikimedia Commons
Cattle on irrigated pasture in Colorado. Photo courtesy of the NRCS via Wikimedia Commons

In some ways, managing an irrigated intensive grazing system is a snap. There is no leapfrogging from one paddock over another and then back again to compensate for varying soil water holding capacities.

In other words, effective irrigation tames the soil-moisture wild card.

As graziers, our ultimate goal is to install management strategies and inputs that create a constant flow of high-quality forage that can be consumed by our livestock. Constancy is key. What Western climes lack in rainfall (try 10 inches or less a year) is made up for in abundant sunshine, the energy driver of all plant systems. By maintaining proper soil fertility and supplying crop irrigation, the grazier out West can sustainably produce grass at an astounding rate.

This opens up a huge window of opportunity: intensive grazing.

How to Build the Dance Hall

The management of intensively grazed pastures is directed and propelled by only two factors – the pasture-recovery period and the paddock-grazing period. The first is the framework and is akin to the dance hall, and the second is the lively dance that is performed. As in all things fun, the two are interwoven, but there are some rules.

Rule number one is build the dance hall! The pasture recovery period is the framework of your intensive grazing system and needs to be carefully considered. All forage plants love to be fully recovered before they are grazed again. Because our farm grazed dairy cows for many years before we converted to sheep, it took me a long time to realize this simple truth.

In fact, it was the quest for a pasture that was not teeming with parasite larvae that eventually lead us to trying rest periods that were longer than 20 days. Once we adopted 30-day rest periods, the light of revelation came on! What we beheld were fewer parasites, increased vigor in our grass, less nitrogen demand, and the opportunity for legumes in our pasture. Tack on increased weaning weights. That’s one grand view!

What Would Your Plant Ask For?

Forage plants pay back big dividends when you hold off on grazing them again until they have fully recovered from the last bite. It’s like you are letting them take in a deep breath of vitality before they get chomped off again; the plant’s root mass and nutrient stockpile is rejuvenated.  Simply put, allowing the plant to recover is the first step to a sustainable pasture.

A smart grazier thinks like a plant. Provide a happy home of healthy soil, add water, and give it a chance to recoup. Is that not what we all need for a happy life? Do what is best for your plants and your livestock will prosper.

Here’s What Good Pasture Recovery Means to You

Photo by Gary Halvorsen, Oregon State Archives
Photo by Gary Halvorsen, Oregon State Archives

1.  Better Spring Pastures
While dairy operations may not always be conducive to letting your forage plants totally recover between grazings, you can allow them to get a good rest in the fall. Let them grow and fully recover before your final grazing. This allows them to store up root reserves, which in turn enables them to survive the winter months and get off to a fast start the next spring. Each year, let a different field have the longest recovery period going into the fall. You will be surprised what a difference it makes in April!

2.  More Forage For Less Nitrogen
For livestock that do not require the nutrient-dense ration that a milk cow does, full plant recovery should be the number one objective in determining your pasture rest period. Over the course of the season, rest periods of 20 days produce about 15% to 20% more total forage than 35-day periods. However, there is a price to be paid: more nitrogen is required, about 25% more. Considering the additional benefits of a longer nourishing rest period, the dollars you would pay for that nitrogen may be better kept in your wallet.

3.  More Legumes
Legumes thrive on long rest periods. Put another way, they don’t survive short ones. This is especially so in the Rocky Mountain West. The easiest way to kill out a nicely intermixed stand of white clover is to whack it off every 20 days. I am speaking from experience. I became an expert at it, slaying all types of pasture legumes with the 20-day sword.

We can all use a mixture of legumes in our pastures to fix nitrogen. Couple that fixation with a pipeline of mychorryzal fungi (more on these super guys next time) and grasses can benefit greatly from “free” nitrogen. Of course, it really isn’t free. Your grazing strategies and your soil’s health foster its generation and its transfer to the grasses your livestock graze. Nurture your legumes with maturity. It works.

Keeping Out the Party Crashers

Haemonchus contorts
Haemonchus contortus

Any grazier who has been in the intensive grazing business has also become an expert in cultivating parasites. Hot and humid – that’s the micro climate of an irrigated pasture. Throw in a high stock density, and you’ve just given birth to millions of parasites.

It took a while for us here in Montana to figure out how to best deal with these little rascals. And we are still learning. However, after four seasons of using no wormers on the lambs, we feel we have cracked the code! As it is in so many other management strategies, prevention is much, much better than treatment. Prevention involves a three-pronged approach: 30-35 day pasture rest; paddock grazing periods of less than four days; and leaving at least a 5- to 6-inch stubble behind you.  We’ll talk more about the latter two next week. If you can’t wait, however, check out our ATTRA tip sheet, Irrigated Pastures: Setting Up an Irrigated Grazing System that Works.

The barber pole worm is by far and away our biggest worm nemesis. Even if you are in other parts of the country, it is likely to be yours too. There are BPs everywhere. Here in Montana, it appears that 30 days after the feces are shed, the populations of the infective larvae are in serious decline. In contrast, I can tell you that at 20 days, they are peaking. This is why we had so much trouble with the barber poles when our rest period was that short. They were a united front, outnumbering our lambs one million to one! Finally, we learned the first line of defense:  lengthen (and rigorously maintain!) your recovery period to 30 days at a minimum.

Now guess the length of time that many cool-season grasses take to recover out West in an irrigated setting. Yep, it’s 30 days. If you are patient with nature a little, she will provide a way for you to accomplish your management goals without all the firefighting.  Just let the grasses recover.

A Message From Your Grass

If plant recovery is so key to all things good in a pasture, you may be asking yourself, then how in the world can I tell when my plants are fully recovered?  Here is the trick. If you are a grazier, seeing this will make you feel all warm inside – just like planting turnips makes you feel like a great farmer. (They all sprout!) A grass plant is fully recovered when its basal leaf turns brown or has a brown tip. Farm kids, impress your little brothers with that gem. Honestly, it took me over 30 years of moving cows and sheep round and round the pasture before I caught on to that. When someone told me, I just stood there with my jaw down!

Go ahead, run out to your pasture and snip off a grass plant stem at the ground level. See a brown leaf at the very bottom of the stem? That plant is recovered. She’s telling you that she can safely be grazed now. I view it as one of life’s great telltales. Certainly it is if you love to see animals out on grass.

So, we find that by establishing a 30- to 35-day pasture rest period, we can let our grasses recover, give legumes a chance, reduce nitrogen fertilization, and say good bye to parasite paranoia. We have just built the dance hall!

Here are the rest of the articles in this series:

Intensive Grazing on Irrigated Pastures

Setting Up an Intensive Grazing System That Works – Pasture Rest Periods

Paddock Grazing Periods in Irrigated Pastures

Putting It All Together – Or Calling the Dance

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Dave Scott
Dave Scott
Dave Scott is a Livestock Specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). Dave has 30 years experience with intensive grazing, including dairy and sheep. He has also served as a part-time consultant in management-intensive grazing, helping ranchers design and implement grazing systems that increased their stocking rates and net profits. Currently, Dave and his wife, Jenny, operate Montana Highland Lamb, a 200-ewe enterprise that markets over 50% of their grass-based natural lamb directly to the consumers in southwest Montana.

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