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Twelve Steps to Amazing Grazing – Part 2

By   /  May 20, 2019  /  No Comments

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Amazing Grazing, in addition to being something we all aspire to, is a state-wide, pasture-based livestock educational initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, coordinated by Matt and Johnny coordinate.

This is Part 2 by Matt Poore and Johnny Rogers. Here’s Part 1 if you missed it.

These steps aren’t just 1-2-3 and you’re done. We’ve all started down this road, and these are some ideas to help us keep going.

Step 6.  Start cutting individual pastures in half with polywire.

The place to start with Adaptive Grazing Management is to divide each permanent pasture in half, with cattle entering the half with the water source whenever you rotate pastures. This change alone will lead to being able to double your stocking density and improvements in your system. We recommend using some rigid fiberglass or plastic posts on the ends (and potentially within the line) in these initial temporary divisions because animals, especially wildlife, will still be in the training process. Setting it up so it will not be easily torn down is good to start with, and as you repeat the process again and again you will learn how to make it stronger and more resilient to tear down using only tread in posts. Now you will also start to develop your skills at looking at a grazed sward and determining when to take down the division fence.  An average stop grazing height of 2-4 inches in all systems is not a bad rule of thumb, a little on the shorter side for bermudagrass-based systems (2-3 inches) than for fescue-based systems (3-4 inches).

Step 7.  Stockpile forage in autumn and strip-graze during the winter followed by dispersed hay feeding.

Want more on stockpile grazing? Troy Bishopp walked us through one of his winters grazing stockpile. Just click over to the Special Collection of the series, and see how Troy’s efforts at extending his grazing season went.

In early summer determine one or more pastures to stockpile for late fall or winter grazing. Here in North Carolina, this might be a mostly fescue field in many areas but could also be a bermudagrass field. Either way, manage the pastures so that the stand is in good shape (either grazed or clipped), and then add about 50 lbs of nitrogen on about September 1, and allow it to grow undisturbed until November 1 for bermudagrass or January 1 for tall fescue. If you’re in other parts of the country check with your local Natural Resources Conservation Service or Conservation District office, or with an extension professional to find out what works best for you.

When you start grazing, set up an initial grazing strip that includes the water source and an expected 2 to 3 days of grass.  Once the forage has been consumed you will need to move the fence to allocate enough grass to feed your cattle for the next 1 to 3 day grazing period. Moving cattle daily has many advantages but cannot be achieved in all situations. However, moving fence every three days is attainable and still gives great forage utilization. This is a great learning opportunity for you and your animals, and it seems doing some daily moves really helps you develop the skills of forage allocation. Try moving your cattle daily when you can (i.e. weekends) and resume the every third day move during the week.

Calculate the forage needs of your cows and determine an estimate of how much forage is available to target the length of your moves.  Of course you need to adapt the size of the offering as you go, but having an idea how many acres should be needed each day will give you a good starting point and a way to calculate a feed budget. Learning how to step off the length and width of your paddock will help you calculate the land area and forage allocation.  After you finish grazing all the stockpiled pastures start unrolling hay or rotating hay rings in areas that can benefit from animal impact and increased nutrients.

Step 8.  Start strip grazing with all pasture movements during the growing season.

Once you are into spring, continue to use the strip grazing technique, flip flopping two reels so that cows are always on a fresh strip, and keep another 1 to 3 day strip set up ahead of them.  Having the next strip set up will help you save time and offer added security in case your polywire is torn down by wildlife or your cattle As long as you are not in an individual pasture more than 10-14 days there is no need to set up a back fence to keep animals off the grazed areas..  If you see animals grazing in the area they already grazed (back-grazing) then you need to make your strips wider as they will always prefer to graze in the fresh strip if there is adequate forage there.  This practice that we call modified strip grazing will become your key grazing tool and you will use it as long as you are a grazier.  The flexibility in the size of strip you offer allows you to flex with your schedule, and you can also set up multiple strips ahead of time if you have to depend on a helper to periodically move your animals. It also allows you to impact animal performance by varying the stop grazing height.  In general the higher the stop grazing height the higher animal performance but the lower grazing utilization efficiency.  The reverse is true….at lower stop grazing height performance will be lower but utilization efficiency can be high.  On general terms use a higher stop grazing height with growing cattle or thin cows and a shorter stop grazing height with brood cows in good body condition.

Step 9.  Develop a comprehensive grazing plan acceptable to NRCS and other governmental agencies.

As you start to optimize the use of your current infrastructure you will see opportunities to improve by adding additional perimeter fencing, watering points, and permanent cross fencing. To guide these efforts you need a comprehensive forage and grazing plan that includes existing and needed infrastructure, that determines an animal/forage balance, and that will project infrastructure development to guide your financial planning and application for cost-share funds. There are many opportunities for both infrastructure development contracts, and also management-based contracts for practices such as Prescribed Grazing. This comprehensive plan will need to be facilitated by a trained planner that can help make sure the plan is acceptable to all agencies involved, and also will be a key for you to keep on a long-term plan for your system.

There’s Assistance Available for Putting Together a Grazing Plan!

Check in with your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office. Talk to them about your challenges and ask them about technical and financial assistance they can provide. They can help you with:

• Grazing plans and the fencing and water sources you’ll need
• Practices that reduce soil erosion, reduce energy use, and improve water use efficiency
• Wildlife habitat conservation and improvement
• Carbon storage and sequestration

Click here to find the office nearest you.

Conservation Districts can also provide support and point you to additional resources. Click here to find one near you.

Step 10.  Implement additional upgrades to infrastructure.

As highlighted in your comprehensive plan, start to improve your watering system, upgrade perimeter fencing and add cross-fencing.  This infrastructure improvement usually needs to be prioritized and done in stages so that you make major improvements in system function with each project, and so you have time to continue your good management while completing the projects in a timely manner.  Full implementation of the comprehensive plan will take many years or even decades, and the plan must be revisited and updated as you go through time.

Step 11.  Continue to refine your skills, be persistent and tenacious.

It takes 5 to 10 years to really see the benefits of Adaptive Grazing Management.  The road to “Amazing Grazing” is challenging because you are dealing with a very dynamic system that is upset by many environmental factors.  With time your system will become more resilient to drought and flood, as a result of improved soil health, but that happens gradually and you have to be patient.  When the first drought hits, realize that the most critical principle in Adaptive Grazing Management is to avoid overgrazing at all costs.  When pastures are all down to the stop grazing height, pull cattle into a sacrifice area and feed hay.  Don’t get discouraged and abandon what you have started!  As soon as the rain comes you will be amazed at what you see compared to your neighbors that continued to graze all pastures through the drought.

Also, understand that it is not uncommon for temporary fence to be torn down when you are early in the game.  Don’t get frustrated and quit….observe, learn and adapt.  Was it low power, lack of training, or a physical failure (corner failed?) that led to the malfunction?  As your skills develop  your system failures in the temporary fence will become rare events, but they can still happen even in the best of systems.

Step 12.  Observe your system and continually improve your management skills.

One thing we love about Adaptive Grazing Management is that we continue to be challenged to learn at a more rapid pace even after all these years.  We realize   that there is knowledge in every mistake  and from every curve ball that nature throws our way. But, no problem or failure is without opportunity. The road to Amazing Grazing is a journey without an end.  Once you have been practicing Adaptive Grazing Management for several years you will realize that you really don’t get to Amazing Grazing, but you can get close to it if you are tenacious.

Continue to attend educational events and as you mature in your understanding of your management, and share that with other producers.  Adaptive graziers with a positive collaborative attitude are a very positive role model in our industry.  Share your grazing excitement with young people, either your immediate family, or through other youth programs.  Teach Adaptive Grazing Management skills to the next generation when they are young so that it is not a new concept to them when they start making the management decisions.

We welcome you on the journey to Amazing Grazing!

There are many producers that have started using Adaptive Grazing Management and are on the journey. It works out to be an exciting and mindful life trying to figure out where we fit into this complex ecosystem.  No matter where you are on the twelve step plan, review the steps and make sure you are on track.  Whether you are at the steps where you are just trying to gain awareness, needing to improve your electric fence skills, learning how to take and interpret soil samples, or needing to develop a comprehensive grazing plan we hope you’ll keep on reading On Pasture and looking for educational opportunities that will serve you well.

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About the author

Dr. Matt Poore has devoted his career to pasture-based agriculture in the Southern USA. His training in forage utilization in mixed diets by beef and dairy cattle at the University of Arizona stimulated his interest in the complex interactions of the ruminant animal and the forages they depend on. During his career at NCSU Dr. Poore has done research on a wide variety of forage topics including; improving understand of forages as receiving crops for confinement animal waste nutrients, the impact of grazing cattle on stream water quality, the utilization of tall fescue in stockpiling systems, local niche meat systems, and how alternative supplements, forages and forage management techniques fit in beef production systems. The impactful extension program he directs "Amazing Grazing" teaches ecological principles relevant to the effective management of pasture-based production systems to diverse audiences including producers, extension agents, veterinarians, and conservationists. Currently Dr. Poore continues with his own programming while providing leadership to the NC Cooperative Extension Animal Agriculture Program Team. While much of his energy has been invested in these professional programs, he also is engaged in production and continues to manage his family's farm at Virgilina, VA, where they raise 110 brood cows and finish most of the steer calves on pasture for the local beef market.

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