If a 12-year-old were to set up a ranch they would probably make it simple, easy, and fun. That’s the kind of ranch I want to be a part of. Everything I do on the ranch I ask myself, “Could a 12-year-old do this?” If the answer is no, then I stop doing it or it gets modified. That is how my approach to stockpiling grass has evolved to what it is today.
Since the largest expense for most livestock operations is winter feed, it’s my goal to plan a grazing rotation so there is high quality, high volume forage available in the fall and winter. This means if I am going to stockpile forage I may as well stockpile good forage. In my mind having lots of old moribund grass in November is a waste of time because livestock do not like eating it and will certainly not do well on that type of feed.
Now that the goal has been established, how do I accomplish this goal with the least amount of labor and hassle possible? Or more simply put, how would a 12-year-old rancher stockpile grass? Let me start at the beginning.
It is my experience that fall/winter grazing is determined during the first rotation in the spring. Therefore, I like to drift into spring grazing. That means, animals have access to harvested feed and stockpiled forage at the same time. However, they keep moving from paddock to paddock similar to a summer rotation. The animals will let you know when they are finished eating harvested feed by leaving the feed untouched.
Having the animals move through the paddocks, they ‘wake up’ the grass and they do this in two ways. First, the hoof action draws out the frost in the ground the same way as hoof action in the winter drives frost in. In my oilfield days, during spring break up we would keep all traffic off one road/trail out of the bush until the very end because any traffic over that road would draw out the frost and it would become a muddy, near impassable bog.
The second way the grass is ‘awakened’ is by the friction when animals tear the grass. I don’t know exactly how it works, but somehow that friction seems to get the grass going in the spring. This means that you can get a jump on starting your stockpiling.
At the latitude where I have been grazing for the last 20 years, a 35 day rotation on the first graze is a pretty safe number to use. Of course, the conditions will dictate whether you go longer or shorter from that number. As you go further south, your average may be closer to 40 days, but if you go much longer than that you will end up with ‘dry cow feed’ as your stockpiled forage. If your grass gets into Phase 3, you are screwed for the rest of the year! If your grass regrows after being grazed in Phase 3, it will only produce about 50% of what would have been possible if grazed in Phase 2.
I will mention it again, the grass needs to be clipped by your livestock on the first pass. Now is not the time to MOB graze and put down a heavy mat of vegetation on the soil. Here’s what one of my paddock’s looks like two days after the cow/calf pairs have been moved out.
About ten years ago I stopped focusing on the grass during the first rotation and focused on my grazing chart. When I was concentrating on the grass, I ended up staying in paddocks until there was a nice even graze. This created a recovery period that was much too long and gave me Phase 3 grasses for the rest of the year, including Fall/Winter. Now I give the animals the whole paddock. They will walk the entire area nipping only the very tips of plants. Many times I have been tempted to leave them one more day because they barely touched the sward. However, when I do a good walk through, I can see little bites on almost all the plants. When grazing sheep though, you might have to look a little bit harder!
This idea came to me after attending a MOB Grazing course about fifteen years ago at Greg Judy’s place. His co-presenter was Ian Mithchel-Innes. Ian explained that our paddocks should be long and narrow because animals tend to walk to the end of the paddock before they start grazing. They do a lot of trampling as they are walking. What I have noticed is that the animals do walk to the end of the paddock and they graze as they walk, clipping the grass and trampling as they go. Something else I have noticed, is that when your animals start behaving like a cohesive group, they create a MOB without the need for multiple daily moves. That way you get the trampling without the labor. (Here’s how I create a cohesive MOB.)
So, that is the first rotation. What about the second rotation? If you have good growing conditions, it’s the same as the first! Clip and Go! Clip and Go!…….. Until August 7.
After August 7, at this latitude, there are not enough daylight hours to produce abundant forage so I slow down the rotation drastically. By this date our stockpiling paddocks have been determined for both Fall/Winter grazing and for calving. These paddocks are set aside and growth is allowed to accumulate. A helpful technique I like to use at this time is combining herds.
When herds are combined, the number of paddocks being grazed at any one time is cut in half. It also means there are more paddocks being rested. Now is also the time to strip graze, graze road allowances, graze riparian areas, or graze any other grass you can find. Every year that I have followed this method, the better stockpile I have for winter grazing. In addition, the more confident I become with the method, the better the results.
Dollars and Cents/Sense
Now let me share my economic thinking on stockpiled grass. I know it may bore a lot of readers, however, to me it is the reason we stockpile forage. Last year our cost to feed a dry cow was $2.10/day. We kept 800 dry pregnant cows on the ranch. That means, for every day of stockpiled grass we utilized, the ranch saved $1,680 in purchased feed. That savings did not include the days we grazed the 470 replacement heifers. Since we grazed about 60 extra days, the ranch saved $100,800 on purchased feed for the cow herd. Don’t you agree it pays to stockpile high quality, high volume forage?
As a final thought on stockpiling forage, I should mention that I only strip graze during the dormant season. In my experience, the growing season is mainly for clipping grass. Yes there are times when mobbing the animals is required, however, if a person is serious about stockpiling forage, mobbing is the exception, not the rule. And if a 12-year-old was ranching, they would probably rather be at the lake then moving cattle 5 times per day!
P.S. I get a feed analysis on our stockpiled grass. It is like my report card. If the TDN is greater than 60%, protein is 12%+, and volume is 150-plus stock days per acre I get a gold star!