There are many ways to improve your pastures. Depending on who is presenting the method it can be in the form of a mechanical, chemical, or seed amendment. Magazines are full of ads detailing the amazing results of seed varieties, the latest chemical weed suppressant, and mechanical-stimulation. However, there are no ads for the most effective method. It is something that can’t be bought from your local sales rep. You do not need to know what soil type you have or what bugs are in your soil. The formula is something you can get for free and will last longer than any input you can purchase. The method of which I speak, is to get yourself organized with a grazing chart & a weekly planner.
A grazing plan is not romantic like going to a bull sale. Nor does it seem like you are really doing something which is quantifiable. The grazing plan is the simple counting of days. You don’t even have to know much about grass. All that is required is to know the approximate days of recovery for your area, counting the number of paddocks you have (I recommend at least 15), then counting the number of days of recovery for a particular time of year. In this article I will discuss how simple, yet imperative it is to develop a grazing plan for long term pasture improvement. This must be done before you learn about things like bugs in the soil, best growing grass, or best grass finishing genetics, etc. This is to say that if you don’t have your grass management figured out, everything else you do will eventually be a waste of time.
I was first introduced to planned grazing in 1999 when my wife & I attended a Holistic Management course. We were taught that grass has three stages of growth. The first stage is slow-growing & highly palatable. The second phase is fast growth because of the increased leaf area available for photosynthesis and is also palatable. The third phase is slow growth because the plant is putting its energy into reproduction and is much less palatable. The goal of the grazier, then, is to keep grass in late Stage 2.
By employing these simple concepts, we were able to achieve significant results. Within two years carrying capacity doubled. This phenomenon was also repeated on each piece of land we rented. At one point we had over 5000ac of rented land and 3000hd of cattle and the results were the same on each parcel.
There are subtleties of grass management that become apparent when you consistently use a grazing chart. For example, recovery time varies depending on how much sunlight is available as the growing season progresses. Daylight hours at the latitude of Athabasca, Alberta are from ~4:30am to ~11pm in June. This means that plants have a lot of time to collect solar energy and are growing very fast. To clip them before they mature, your stock must be moved through the paddocks rapidly. This leads to another subtlety. If a plant reaches maturity before being clipped, it is my observation that you lose ~50% of the possible regrowth. Once a plant reaches maturity, it has completed its life cycle for the year and there is no longer an urgency to grow & reproduce. Again, a grazier’s goal is to keep the grass sward in late phase two.
What I have shared so far leads back to the importance of the grazing chart. Your plan is a visual reminder of recovery time. At the latitude of Athabasca, 35 days of recovery between May 15 & July 15 is pretty consistent (plus or minus five days). After July 15, recovery is more like 40-50 days. Which is to say, you don’t have to know much about grass to be a successful grazier. All that is involved is counting the number of days between when you last left a paddock and when you go back to the paddock. If you are more than 40 days you will lose ~50% production on the next rotation, so rework your plan. If you are less than 30 days you are injuring the plants because they won’t be in the second half of phase two, so rework the plan.
It should be noted at this time that the number of days in a paddock is very important as well. During fast growth, plants will grow enough in three days that animals can take a bite of new growth. This does not seem like a big deal. However, the plants are being injured and hence, weakened. This is easily overlooked because it is not immediately noticeable. If we were injuring our livestock, we would certainly notice right away. I consider plant injury the same as injuring livestock…DON’T DO IT! The grazing chart will show you if your graze periods are too long. If they are, you must once again rework the plan.
Here is an example of how to rework a grazing plan. Let’s assume it is June 5 and it has been a dry spring. Your grazing plan is based on 35 days of recovery, but you notice the paddocks that have already been grazed are not recovering as fast as you anticipated. The recovery period must be increased and you decide to extend it to 42 days. There are two ways to do this. First, add more paddocks (i.e. graze bush paddocks, some hay land, etc.) and you may need to be creative. Secondly, you can increase your graze period if you have been leaving an abundance of grass in each paddock. Increasing your graze time by one day on 10 paddocks, will give you an extra 9 days of recovery. Of course if there is not enough grass to increase your graze period then method one is your best option.
Once you decide how to increase recovery time, go back to your grazing chart and erase your plan. Then fill in your new plan using the extra paddocks or increased graze periods. Once complete, count the number of days between the when herd leaves the current paddock and when the herd will be back for the next graze. If the number of days is between 42-45 days, you are set. If it is more than 45 days or less than 42 days you must do some more tweaking.
In my days before ranching, I worked on oil well drilling rigs. When I was set up as a motorman (a motorman is like the head roughneck) I was working my butt off the entire 12hr shift. The only problem was that I wasn’t getting anything accomplished! The rig manager watched me for the first week without saying much. He then called me into his office and asked me how it was going. I told him it was a lot of work, and I didn’t feel like I was getting anything accomplished. He readily agreed! He then went on to explain that to get ahead in my duties, I needed to finish one task before going on to the next. By following that philosophy, I wouldn’t have to go back and do it again. Further, I wouldn’t have to fix something right before I used it because it would be completely operational ahead of time. Amazingly, my job became easier and easier as I employed this principle.
Since my rig days, I started using a weekly plan and then a monthly plan to accomplish my goals. You may question the efficacy of this thinking because there are too many variables when ranching. Maybe you always have too many ‘fires to put out’ to effectively plan. This may be true to start. However, the more you use a weekly and monthly plan, the fewer ‘emergencies’ you will have to deal with, and you will be able to get ahead of upcoming duties. Combining the grazing plan with a weekly plan enables you to remember well in advance that a fence requires fixing or water line must be set up.
When I first started grazing, I was very impressed by all the grass I could grow. I thought that what I was doing was pretty amazing. After about 8 years I realized all I was doing was being organized. It was a pretty humbling epiphany. In fact, it was a bit depressing because I thought I was this incredible grass manager when really all I was, was a good organizer.
I have now come to the realization that to jump start your pasture is a simple thing. Kids in primary school can figure it out once they understand the three phases of grass growth. All that is required is to count the days of recovery and the days of grazing. The grazing chart enables you to do this effectively and it is my contention that a grazing plan is the most effective way to improve your pastures. Once you have that mastered, only then is it time to look at other things like improved seed varieties, the latest chemicals, or any other pasture amendment. Quite possibly by then, you will realize you don’t need much more than a grazing plan.
Are You Ready to Get Organized?
Troy Bishopp put together a bunch of grazing chart templates for you to use. Get yours here!