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Are you GRAZING or just grazing?

By   /  June 2, 2014  /  3 Comments

Making more money from your pasture is not just about soil fertility, it’s about management. Darrell explains how much more weight his herd gained on a shorter sward, and how he managed the pasture to get from just grazing to GRAZING.

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Darrell's son Nick with a nice steelhead, even though it's not a brown trout

Darrell’s son Nick with a nice steelhead, even though it’s not a brown trout

My son, best bud from high school, and I were out this past weekend fishing on Lake Ontario for the big brown trout that normally come in close to shore this time of year and can be easily caught trolling minnow imitating lures in water from 8 to 30 feet deep.  We spent hours and hours on the water looking for those big fish.  We had two down riggers running lures down about 10-25 feet below the surface.  We had 4 lines off of planer boards running lures up to 75 feet each side of the boat, and we had two lines running directly behind the boat.

Can you picture a boat pulling 8 fishing lures behind it and out to each side, covering a swath of water about 150 feet wide, and the lures running from just under the surface down to 25 feet?  We tried spoons, stick baits, and deep diving crank baits.  We tried lure colors from black and silver to fluorescent orange and gold and all colors in between.  Lure sizes ranged from 2 to 6 inches in size.  We had our depth finder and GPS unit giving us our location, water depth and temperature, the marine radio kept an eye on the weather for us, and the satellite radio entertained us with an endless assortment of tunes.  We were FISHING! Or at least that is what we thought we were doing.  As it turned out, what we were really doing was washing lures and “just fishing.”

Ken's steelhead - not bad at all!

Ken’s steelhead – not bad at all!

Although we caught a steelhead trout about 30 inches long, a Coho salmon of similar size, and a 20 inch smallmouth bass (all of which were really nice fish), we did not catch a single brown trout, which was what we were after.

We did not know that we had been “just fishing” until we got back to the Port of Oswego boat launch, and there was this charter boat captain with his 4 clients standing behind their morning catch of brown trout getting their pictures taken. While I did not count the fish, there were a bunch, and some were well over 10 pounds.

As it turned out, one of the clients that had been on the charter boat was walking back to his car, and as he walked past us asked how we had made out.  So we told him.  He responded by telling us the captain had them fishing with downriggers set 30 feet deep in 60 feet of water, and all of the fish were caught on black and purple minnow imitating stick baits about 5 inches long.

While we had been out on the same water as these guys, doing pretty much what we thought was the same stuff as they had been doing, it was obvious they had been FISHING while we had been only “just fishing.”

In our defense, we did catch some nice fish, just not what we were after.

So you are probably wondering by now what does a fish tale have to do with GRAZING….or is it grazing?

As it turns out, grazing and fishing have a lot in common in that it is generally not a matter of what you are doing, it is more about how you are doing it, when, and where.

Sure, I have had fishing days when throwing out a small blue and silver spoon and trolling it 150 feet behind the boat in 10-15 feet of water caught all of the brown trout and Coho salmon you could possibly want.  On those days FISHING meant I did not have to do a lot to catch a lot of fish.  And sure, there are days when turning your critters out on pasture without a plan…or a clue as to what you are really doing… turns out to be GRAZING.  More often than not, however, it will turn out that you are “just grazing.”

Cornell SignWhen I started my career in grassland agriculture, I was simply looking for a summer job working out-of-doors.  As it turned out, I got a job at the now defunct Cornell University Hillside Pasture Research and Demonstration Project in Harford, NY.

The time was 1980, and at the time, we thought we were GRAZING.  We were not.

In the first Cornell study I was involved with, we used 4-paddock rotational grazing systems (20 acres subdivided into 4-five acre paddocks).  Our improved pastures were fertilized and limed to soil test specifications and seeded to either smooth bromegrass or smooth bromegrass with birdsfoot trefoil.  Our benchmark or control pastures were not seeded or fertilized.  They were just as Mother Nature created; an assortment of naturalized grasses, forbs, and shrubs.  We grazed 20 cow-calf pairs on each pasture type with two replications of each treatment. We did not start grazing in the spring until the pastures were over a foot tall, we moved our cattle from paddock to paddock every 7 -10 days, and we routinely had cattle wallowing belly deep in grass.

During the May-June period, calf gains were about 2.2 -2.4 pounds a day.  During the July – August period (as the grass got taller and browner) calf gains declined to 1.3 – 1.4 pounds a day.  During the September – October period (after the pastures had been clipped and were again shorter and greener) calf gains increased to around 2.0 -2.2 pounds a day.  Season-long average daily calf gains (1980-1984) averaged about 2.0 pounds per day, and weaning weights averaged 461 pounds.  Some thought we were GRAZING.  I, however, did not.

The Hillside Pasture Research and Demonstration Project was just as the name implied.  It was located on a hillside with slopes ranging from 0 to 40%.  In my early years working on the project, I got to spend a great deal of time on a tractor with the front wheels dancing in the air as I drove up that hill brush hogging all of the grass the cattle would not eat, and on wet days, sliding back down it, at speed, with the tractor tires happily churning backwards. I called it “tractor skiing.” Had tractor skiing been an Olympic sport in 1980, I am confident the “miracle on ice” would not have seemed quite so miraculous. But I digress.

Keep in mind, this was just a summer job for me, and I was not in charge. I was simply following orders from someone who did not have to drive the tractor.  In addition, I was so new to the grazing business I did not know what the impact of grass height was on animal performance. Like most, I am sure I assumed more grass was better than less.  However, due to an unexpected change in personnel on the project, I got the chance to test that notion when I accepted the position of pasture research manager.

Our pastures in the early 1980s.

Our pastures in the early 1980s.

It was obvious, to me anyway, we were waiting too long to start grazing in the spring.  When we waited until the grass was over a foot tall before we turned cattle out, by the time we finished grazing the first paddock, the grass in the remaining paddocks was so tall and rank, most of it would get peed on, pooped on, stomped on, and slept on but not eaten. Hence, the reason for getting good at tractor skiing.

We spent time, money, and effort to agronomically improve and increase the forage production on our pastures.  It really did not make any economic sense (or cents) to grow all of this grass and then just brush hog and leave it on the ground.  With increasing plant height and age, brown leaves and stems increase, while the preferred green leaves and stems decrease.  Thus when we had our cattle belly deep in grass, they were forced to sort through and selectively graze to find the “good stuff.” They took the best and left the rest.  As the performance of our cattle was no better than on our control pastures, it was obvious we were not even recovering our improvement costs.  Besides that, tractor skiing was not recognized as an Olympic sport, and nobody cared how good I was at it.

Livestock prefer green leaves over green stems, green stems over brown leaves, and they prefer brown leaves over brown stems. They do this because the food value is in the green, and in particular, in green leaf.  This, by the way, is well documented in the scientific literature. It is not something I made up in a moment of panic while skiing down some pasture.

I surmised, if we provided our cattle with more of what they preferred to eat and less of what they did not want to eat, they would eat more and the performance of our cattle would increase, we would use more of what we actually grew, and somebody (me) would get to spend less white knuckle time honing my skiing skills.  All we had to do was start grazing sooner in the spring and move cattle into paddocks where the grass was shorter rather than taller.  And that is what we tried.  I say tried because, at the time, we did not know.  We were learning, and we used our cattle scale to monitor the results.

Keep in mind; unless you have an honest method of measuring performance, there is no way to know if what you are doing is better or worse than doing something else. Thus, we did not guess about how our cattle were doing, we knew how our cattle were doing. We weighed them every 28 days.

By the time the project ended in the early 90s, our pastures were mostly orchardgrass and white clover.  The bromegrass and birdsfoot trefoil we started with was gone by the third year.  We put in new water lines and fences so we could graze the upper steeper slopes separate from the lower less steep slopes.  As tractor skiing never caught on as an Olympic sport, I no longer felt the need to maintain my skills.  Thus we no longer brush hogged and wasted grass.  When the grass started to get too tall to be efficiently harvested by the cattle, we simply took some of the paddocks, on the less steep slopes, out of the grazing rotation and mowed and baled them.  We grazed our pastures using a 16-paddock rotational stocking method.  We started grazing in the spring when the pastures were 4 to 6-inches tall, and we moved our cattle from paddock to paddock every 2 -3 days.  Instead of routinely having cattle belly deep in grass, we routinely had cattle in grass 8 to 12 inches tall.  Tractor skiing had become a sport of the past.

Our pastures in the late 1980s.

Our pastures in the late 1980s.

I also learned, that as we changed from grazing tall grass, as we did in 1980-1984, to grazing shorter grass, as we did in 1985-1989, the average daily gain of our calves increased from 2.0 pounds per day to over 2.5  pounds per day, and our weaning weights increased from 461 pounds to 565 pounds.  In addition, by improving the genetic merit of our cattle (selecting bulls with high growth and weaning weights) to use in conjunction with our improved pasture management, we were further able to increase the average daily gains of our calves to 2.76 pounds per day and weaning weights to 584 pounds.

Learning by doing and having the ability to monitor and evaluate changes in management protocols taught me a lot during the years I spent working on the project at Cornell.  For example, although I learned to ski tractors down some really steep slopes, I also learned there was not a job market for tractor skiers.  I also learned that like the difference between FISHING and fishing there is also a difference between GRAZING and grazing.

Why you graze the way you graze is a personal decision based on whatever you choose to base your decision on.  Some need to maximize production per animal, some need to maximize production per acre of pasture, some seek to optimize these things, some seek to build organic matter in the soil, some use grazing to keep land open, to reduce weeds, manage wildlife, reorder succession, or create a view.  There are many reasons why you do what you do.   However, whatever you do, I encourage you to have both eyes open at the same time.  One eye should be monitoring your animals, one should be monitoring your pasture plants, and both should be monitoring your land and your wallet.  Be on the lookout for things like livestock losing condition, not breeding back, low milk production or not gaining weight, bare ground, soil erosion, silt in streams and ponds, plants that are not flourishing, and losses in plant diversity.  All of these things are very likely the result of grazing rather than GRAZING.  Keep also in mind that due to differing objectives from one farm to the next, GRAZING on one farm may result in simply grazing on another.

And as for me, the next time I am out fishing on Lake Ontario, you can bet I am not going to let a certain charter boat get so far away from me that I can’t see (with a good pair of binoculars) what he is using to FISH with.  After all, FISHING without catching fish is just fishing.

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About the author

Darrell began his career in grassland research and management in 1980 by walking across a plowed field in the rain to ask the farm manager of Cornell University’s Mount Pleasant Research Farm for a job. Although the farm manager had no funds that particular year for hiring summer help, Darrell was informed that there was a new pasture research project getting underway at Cornell’s Teaching and Research Center in Harford, NY, and they could likely use some help from a person willing to walk across a plowed field in the rain to ask for a job. Little did Darrell know that plodding through mud and rain would lead to 34 years of researching, promoting, and helping farmers implement grazing-based livestock production systems. Along the way, Darrell earned a Master’s degree in Resource Management and Ecology, a PhD in Range Science with a concentration in the foraging behavior and diet selection of herbivores, served as the pasture research manager at the Cornell University Hillside Pasture Research and Demonstration project, and after 26 years as the state grazing land management specialist with the USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service in New York State, has retired. While Darrell can still be found walking across plowed fields in the spring rain, with a turkey call in his jacket pocket and a 12 gauge shot gun cradled in the crook of his arm, which, by the way, was exactly what he was doing those 34 years ago when a job got in the way, he does prefer to talk grass and fish.


  1. Paul Nehring says:

    The problem with this recommendation is that in WI we go from grass that is 5-6 inches and just barely ready to graze in mid-May, to grass that is 2 feet tall and headed out in two weeks. There is simply no way to keep up and graze all across the farm. While I can and do manage some of this through making hay/hayleage or baleage, if I do it across too much of the farm, I won’t have enough recovered pasture for the cattle to graze.
    Instead, I find it much better to just stockpile some of it and give the cattle more selection, which, yes, means they waste some, but thathas also improved our soil organic matter, and improved cover on the soil giving me better regrowth in the heat of July.
    Every area has a different climate and different ways to graze to make the most of the natural resources. It’s best to try different approaches and maintain good records to find out what works in your area.

    • Mort Kothmann says:

      Paul, I think that the ‘take-home’ is that each region and vegetation type needs ‘custom’ management and there is not just one best management practice. I note that Darrell found that the species composition of his pastures changed to ‘match’ his grazing system. He shifted from erect growing tall species to species with more basal growth. When the grasses are tall these species cannot thrive because there is not enough light near the ground where they grow. However, when the sward is grazed shorter, the species that produce their leaves near the ground are able to increase. Vegetation will respond to the management it receives, within it genetic abilities.

  2. Jim Gerrish says:

    Well stated, Darrell.

    Give cattle what they prefer to eat and performance is always better than when presented with what they really don’t care to eat. A couple of years ago, through poor Spring grazing management on my part, I allowed about a hundred acres to grow well beyond phase 3 grass when I began grazing it in late July. The price I paid for this was 15-20% reduction in pasture yield and 40 lbs of reduced weaning weight.

    I still advocate early aggressive Spring grazing with rapid moves followed by longer recovery periods through summer and always leaving ample residual behind.

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