Here is the second half of my strangely-titled discourse on grass cattle management. I have come to the conclusion that on a correctly managed enterprise, cattle should appear not to have legs. In Part 1, I discussed the animal side of this philosophy. Now I’ll continue with the forage aspect of it.
Please note that I am writing about my personal experiences, which take place in the northeast US with mob-grazed beef cattle. Some of the ideas below are not applicable to the Western states, where grass species and range management tactics are very different. I am also not addressing dairy farms or irrigated pastures. However, I firmly believe that the strategy described below works. I have observed its successful implementation on numerous farms from Missouri to New York.
Forage Recovery Management: Allow your grass to get tall enough to hide cows’ legs.
It’s common knowledge that short, vegetative grass is more digestible than mature, taller grass. For this reason, many agriculture professionals recommend a short grazing rotation (30-40 days). I personally disagree with this practice, in favor of tall grass grazing. By “tall grass,” I am referring to Eastern cool-season perennial forages such as orchardgrass and tall fescue, grown to at least 10 inches between grazings.
My reasoning for using tall grasses is as follows. You can expect the root system of a grass plant to mirror the size you allow its topgrowth to reach. That means that a grass sward you regularly let grow to 12 inches has roots about 12 inches deep. If you graze your grass down to 2-inch stubble all the time, the root system will degrade and become very shallow. That’s fine if you could guarantee 2 inches of rain every week. But when a drought hits (and it will!), short grass with short roots and no stored nutrient bank can’t survive. Nonexistent grass is not digestible at all! In addition, no trampling of forage mass (for decay into soil-building organic matter) can occur unless grass is allowed to reach or surpass about 10 inches in height. You can definitely forget stockpiling winter feed if you’re grazing into the dirt. Say hello to the hay bills.
If you provide your grass-genetic herd with taller, fully recovered grass, they will do just fine as long as their intake is never limited. Read that sentence again: If you provide your grass-genetic herd with taller, fully recovered grass, they will do just fine as long as their intake is never limited! Having hardy, easy-keeping genetics is absolutely imperative to successful tall grass grazing. Dairy cattle and commodity beef breeds are generally high-maintenance animals with extreme production demands placed on them. These types of cattle may not be suited for grazing mature forages. Equally important is providing more grass to your herd than they could ever consume, every day and every move.
Managing your pastures to build soil fertility and plant nutrient content is hugely important if you’re grazing more mature forages. That topic could fill books, so review the work of Greg Judy, Allan Savory and Ian Mitchell-Innes for more information about holistic fertility building.
What is the key to getting this tall, abundant grass? Proper recovery period management! Recovery is the single most important factor that determines the sustainability of your grazing plan. It is the root (pardon the pun) from which all the benefits of mob grazing grow. Consistent full recovery is the only cost-effective way to develop a strong forage-soil-microbial ecosystem. Any other fertilization method would require more money and labor than I’m willing to supply. Simply letting grass rest long enough has countless benefits: increased livestock carrying capacity, less water runoff and erosion, more attractive habitat for wildlife, and protection for soil organisms from scorching sun.
A grass plant has recovered fully when it has grown back 3-4 mature leaves after being grazed. This is the earliest point at which another defoliation will not damage the plants. If you graze said paddock again before that time, the plants’ root systems and regrowth vigor will be harmed.
In the Eastern United States, full recovery can take anywhere from 60 to 120 days. It varies based on season, precipitation and soil health. I recommend allowing a recovery period of at least 75 days on every farm east of the Mississippi River. With the right cattle, it’s nearly impossible to have a recovery period that’s too long.
The only exception to the 75-day rule may be during spring greenup, when grass is growing extremely fast. You can decrease the recovery period that follows your first spring rotation, but only if cattle are stocked lightly enough that they eat only the tips of the grass.
When you’re grazing fully-rested tall grass, it should hide the legs of your small, barrel-gutted, stocky cattle.
Forage Allocation: Let cattle eat until they’re full and lie down, hiding their legs.
If you never see your cattle lie down, this could indicate a forage allocation problem. When provided with all-they-can-eat forage, cattle will fill up on grass, then lie down to ruminate. They repeat this cycle multiple times per day. You should regularly see your animals lying down and chewing their cud (which hides their legs). If there isn’t enough feed for your cows, they will be up grazing all day, trying desperately to fill their rumens. They’re expending precious energy that could be used for gain, and not taking in enough of it as it is. Move the herd off each paddock when a maximum of 50% of the forage in it has been eaten. This allows the animals to select the most nutrient-dense forage and trample the rest. Animal performance is maximized, and so is grass sward health and organic matter incorporation into the soil.
Make sure to check the left sides of your cattle for rumen fill regularly. If there’s a sunken triangle between the ribcage and hip just below the spine, the animal’s forage intake has been limited. That triangular area should be full and rounded on properly fed cows. Give your herd more grass if you see sunken spots. You must check the left side of the animal, because the rumen is not visible on the right side.
(On a side note, even well-fed cattle will voraciously graze every new piece of pasture they turned onto. If you are moving multiple times per day, don’t be surprised if cattle are eating constantly. In this case, they’re probably not starving.)
In summary, your cattle should appear not to have legs. Breed for short, stocky, grass-efficient cattle whose legs get lost in the grass. Your grass must be allowed to recover fully to a tall height, covering the legs of your animals. Do not allow more than 50% of the grass to be removed and reveal your herd’s hooves. Allocate your forage so that your cattle have more to eat than they could ever possibly ingest. This allows them to fill up, then lay down and hide their legs to ruminate. Breed and cull your herd to fit into a low-labor management plan, so you don’t have to spend time looking at your cows’ legs. If there are no legs in sight, you’re grazing right!