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Grazing Principles to Start Your Season Off Right

This 4:53 video from Ranchlands is a great example of how the principles of grass and livestock management are the same, no matter your location or climate. Check it out, and then read on for a list of principles and how to make them work for you.

Check out Ranchlands vision, mission and goals on their website.

1. What Are Your Goals?

The Ranchlands managers begin with their goals – what they are managing for. Of course it includes profit, but as you listened you probably heard that they are also concerned about managing weed populations, and providing good wildlife habitat. They want the grass to feed the cattle and feed the soil so they manage stocking rate to accomplish that as part of their larger mission.

Writing goals down is helpful because it makes you think about what’s important to you and where you want to end up. It also helps keep family and employees on the same page. If you’d like some ideas on how to write your own goals, here’s a suggestion from Troy Bishopp:

2. What Can Your Pastures Produce and How Much Feed Do You Need?

Step two is finding out what’s growing on the pasture or range, and how much of it there is. These ranchers run transects to find out what plants are growing, and then they clip and weigh it to find out how much feed per acre they have. Some folks use grazing sticks, others use rising plate meters for this. But a successful grazier always knows how much forage they’re starting with and how much their animals need.

Here’s how to use a grazing stick to measure forage.

The Grazing Stick: Tool or Toy?

Another option is to check out the Natural Resources Conservation Services Web Soil Survey. It can give you an estimate of forage production in wet, dry and normal years based on your soil type and location.

What Are Your Soils Capable Of?

And here’s how to figure out how much feed your livestock need.

Your Grazing Chart – Figuring Animal Needs

3. Planning When and Where to Graze

Once you know how much feed you have, and how much you need to feed your stock, you move on to Step three: charting where your stock will graze, when, and for how long. Your goals help you in planning, just like they do for Ranchlands managers. They chose certain pastures for early grazing based on weed management concerns. Some folks manage for nesting birds or to graze mosaics to provide better cover and open space for grouse.

For this step it’s helpful to have a map of your pastures. Here’s a suggestion for getting that done:

Creating Your Grazing Chart, Mapping Your Pastures

4. Rest

“…They don’t come back to a plant until it’s completely rested.”

Duke Phillips says it so quickly that you might even miss it in this video. But making sure plants recover is a critical step in the grazing process.

How much recovery time will your plants need? It depends on the plant and the weather. In general, more water grows more forage more quickly. Less means slower regrowth. Here are some ways to get an idea of what to expect:

1. Talk to someone who knows. Visit your local Natural Resources Conservation Service or Conservation District office, or call a Cooperative Extension specialist.

2. Check the internet. Sometimes you can Google “forage growth curve” for your state or a for a particular forage or set of forages and you’ll find graphs showing when you can expect fast growth and when growth slows (usually mid-summer here in the U.S.).

5. Monitor

If you make it through your whole grazing season without having to modify your plan it will be a miracle. But most of us will have to adapt to unexpected events. Maybe the weather changes so you don’t get as much rain as you hoped for slowing regrowth. Or maybe you misjudged the size of a pasture and it was too big or too small. Maybe the herd busted out and grazed the next pasture before you planned on it. So pay attention to what happens and adjust accordingly.

I find photos to be especially helpful for seeing change and for remembering what happened. Here’s how:

Get Your Grazing Chart

Planning and providing enough forage for your livestock and enough rest for your pastures is much easier when you can write it down. It helps you think through what you want to do and there’s the added benefit of being able to schedule in a little time off for fun with family and friends.

Every year, Troy Bishopp updates grazing charts for us all. Get your 2019 version here:

Start Slow

Every grazier I know, no matter how many years they’ve been at it, still says they are learning how to be a good at it. It’s not an easy thing because there are so many variables that we don’t have control over. So start small and grow from there. Your goal for the year might be to just divide one pasture into two and then see how it goes. Just start where you are and take one small step after another.

And ask for help. Your local Natural Resources Conservation Service or Conservation District office and Cooperative Extention all have staff that can help you with planning, and even with finding financial assistance for projects. We all want you to succeed!

Let us know how it’s going from time to time and if there’s information I can find for you, drop me a note!

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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