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When High Density Hurts: Remediating Overgrazed Land

By   /  September 9, 2019  /  1 Comment

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I am a complete believer in mob (high-density rotational) grazing. I have seen marginal land explode with productivity and vigor after a properly orchestrated high-density kick in the rear. But like any tool, misuse can turn animal impact into a powerful force for destruction. There are some situations in grazing when you should not use high stocking density.

If you’d like to know if you’ve got good residual in your pastures, this article by Jim Gerrish might help.

The key to proper application of animal impact is ground cover! By all means, go crazy with density if the pasture you’re talking about has sat idle for long enough to accumulate lots of dead plant matter. Properties like this have plenty of litter on the ground to combat the destructive force of hooves. High density is needed in this case to tread organic matter into the soil for digestion by microbes, and to disturb the soil for colonization by germinating plants.

The problem comes in when ground cover is absent. I learned this the hard way when I took over a farm that had been continuous-grazed for 10 years. The whole place looked like Astroturf. I was chomping at the bit to unleash the polywire on this farm and watch the poor abused grass spring back to life. But all I managed to do by mob grazing this farm was destroy whatever grass was left. There was no litter to buffer the assault of the hooves on the all-but-bare ground. Couple that with the 40+ inches of rain New York gets annually, and I ended up with mud, moss and pugging. I ended up with a farm in even worse condition than I started with, and had to start feeding hay in August. What a wreck! What I should have done was just let this farm rest.

Here’s an example of what Meg is talking about. It comes from a ranch Kathy once visited where the manager believed in grazing his pastures this short every year. Notice the bare ground and lack of litter.

 

Here’s what I recommend for those who are taking on the rehabilitation of an overgrazed pasture. First, leave it alone for an entire growing season. No grazing and no haying. If you choose to seed or fertilize, now would be the time to do it. This is also the time to build or fix fences, watering systems, shelters and handling facilities.

Spend the non-growing season unrolling hay on the pasture. This accelerates the deposition of organic matter. It also provides seed and protection for the soil from the elements. You’ll be amazed at the amount of grass that germinates from unrolling “waste” the following spring.

Greg Judy is also a big proponent of unrolling hay bales in pasture for feed and fertility. Here you see the special bale unroller he designed and sells.

If you feed livestock with the unrolled hay, don’t allow mud or pugging to happen. Stock at low density and keep the animals moving. If this strategy isn’t sufficient to stop the over-impact in wet weather, move the herd to a sacrifice area. Unrolling some rotten junk hay your neighbor let you have for nothing will give your pasture a huge boost, even in the absence of livestock.

When you begin to graze the following spring, your biggest concerns are guaranteeing full forage recovery and keeping grazing density low. Make paddocks large and move the herd as often as possible, letting animals eat only the tips of the grass plants. Starting with your second rotation, slow down and graze at moderate density. Take 50% of the plant, but no more.

As your forage litter base gets thicker and plants produce more and more top growth, you can graze at progressively higher densities. You will be able to increase your stocking rate (note the difference between stocking rate and stocking density!) as your land becomes healthier, as long as you don’t put the cart before the horse. If you overstock in your first year on a marginal pasture, you’ll just degrade it further.

Vail Dixon of Simple Soil Solutions brought up a valid point at a conference we attended in Wisconsin. She said that when healing an overgrazed property, organic matter deposition (hay unrolling) can be done before the pasture is rested. This will give the land all of the raw materials it needs to heal itself during the rest period. I can see this working just as well as my strategy of rest before hay unrolling.

The last thing an abused pasture needs is high grazing density right off the bat. First, rest it and deposit ground cover in the form of unrolled hay. The order of those first two steps can be switched, depending on season and situation. When you begin grazing, do so at a very low stocking rate and stocking density. Be careful to take just the tips off the grass and allow it plenty of recovery time. In subsequent grazing seasons, you will work up to high stocking rate and high density as land health increases.

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About the author

I graduated from West Virginia University in 2012 with a degree in livestock management, and a minor in agribusiness. While at WVU, I won a statewide entrepreneurship competition with a patentable device I designed for video-assisted cattle artificial insemination. I then spent six months interning for grazing expert Greg Judy in Missouri. Now I run Rhinestone Cattle Consulting, helping new and experienced farmers build profitable mob grazing beef operations. I offer artificial insemination, electric fence building and graphic design services too. I'll travel anywhere in the 48 states for on-farm consulting and speaking at conferences.

1 Comment

  1. Ethan says:

    Thank you for addressing this! I will be sharing this widely.

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