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Modern Methods for Forage Improvement

By   /  April 26, 2021  /  1 Comment

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This is a condensed version of the article. Click here to download and read the full version found in the Journal of Range Management archives (Vol. 7 No. 2 pages 77-81).

This is a condensed version of the article. Click here to download and read the full version found in the Journal of Range Management archives (Vol. 7 No. 2 pages 77-81).

A few weeks ago we introduced Robert E. Williams and his piece in the Journal of Range Management about best grazing management practices. Though “Modern Methods of Getting Uniform Use of Ranges” was written 68 years ago, the principles he includes still hold true today. In fact, much of what he writes could be considered “regenerative.” So, here is an “everything old is new again” look at grazing management, with some comparisons to what we do today. (And for those of you who don’t work on the range, just substitute the word “pasture” and it works for you too! :-))

In Part 1, Williams discussed watering facilities and fences. In Part 2 he looked at livestock management practices like herding and the use of salt to move livestock to different locations. Now, we’ll finish off with a look at management practices to ensure a good supply of quality forage.

Forage Improvement Practices

Deferred and rotation grazing

By deferring or rotating use of range areas, the grazing pattern of the range is broken. All parts of the range reach about the same stage of growth and succulence during the rest period. Deferred and rotation grazing permit utilization of less desirable plants when they are most palatable and makes it possible for the better forage plants to grow and improve when not, being grazed.

Hyder and Sawyer (1951) reported that, rotation grazing on bunchgrass-sagebrush cattle range in southeastern Oregon resulted in better distribution of grazing than season-long grazing. Their data showed that 56 percent of the rotation-grazed ranges was properly utilized as compared with 39 percent, of the Season-long range. The areas receiving heavy utilization comprised 26 percent under rotation and 37 percent under season-long use. Lightly grazed areas made up 18 percent of the rotation range
and 23 percent of the range used the full season.

Grazing ranges to the desired degree of use in a relatively short time and then removing the stock to let new growth take place leads to uniform range use and helps overcome patchy grazing.

Sixty-eight years later….

This practice, of moving livestock through pastures or rangelands has been promoted under a variety of names. Today we call it “regenerative grazing.” And guess what – many graziers are still reluctant to adopt these practices. If renaming something increases adoption, I’m all for it. But I think it’s helpful to us all to see that the principles of good management have been with us for decades. Now it’s our job to use them.

Control of undesirable vegetation

Control of brush on ranges in South and Central Texas by using chemicals or by bulldozing, cabling or chaining has made possible better use by livestock. Such operations are more successful when used in combination with other good management practices. Brush control should he practiced first on areas farthest from permanent water to improve grazing distribution. Experience has shown that cattle prefer the grass after the shade has been removed and tend to graze the openings even though they may be some distance from water.

Mowing old, unpalatable growth in lightly-used portions of the range increases succulent new grass and helps draw cattle into such area. This practice is particularly helpful in high rainfall areas.

Sixty-eight years later….

Chaining involved hooking an anchor chain to two bulldozers. The dozers would then drag the chain cross-country, uprooting trees and brush. It was followed up with seeding operations to increase the amount of forbs and grasses. The practice is not a very common practice today.

 

Removing trees from former grasslands continues to be a beneficial practice in some places, especially where tree encroachment threatens habitat of grassland birds. The lesser prairie chicken is one of the birds that benefits from grasslands. Here’s an example of managing for these birds:

Saving a Chicken Saves Cattle and Ranchers

Bobwhite quail are another species that benefit from removing trees and maintaining grasslands:

https://onpasture.com/2018/10/29/beef-and-bobwhites-how-to-maximize-livestock-production-while-helping-wildlife/

Seeding or fertilizing

The use of seeded and grazed firebreaks on the forest ranges in the South has been described by Peevy and Campbell (1948), Silker et al. (1950), and others. This practice is designed to help control wildfires by establishing closely grazed strips of vegetation in critical areas and in conjunction with plowed fire lanes. Strips about 40 feet wide are seeded to low-growing forage species such as carpetgrass and fertilized to help establish them and to encourage cattle to keep them closely grazed. Effective firebreaks have also been established through grazing by fertilizing native bluestem range (Silker et al., 1950). This practice aids in getting good distribution of grazing and is being used by several livestock operators. Strips must be located with full consideration to location of water and fences, and established with care to insure against undue damage to timber, grass and soil. Fertilized strips 40 feet wide need a plowed strip 4 to 6 feet wide along each side for effective fire control in unusually dry years.

Since fertilization encourages heavy use, great care must be used in treating range areas. Where land is fertilized in a block, fencing is desirable to control grazing of desirable forage species. It is doubtful if the cost of such fertilizer programs on southern ranges may be justified by benefits from forage improvement and grazing distribution except when combined with improved fire protection.

Sixty-eight years later….

We’re still working on this. In fact, in Idaho, the Bureau of Land Management has been working on a pilot project to use grazing cattle to create firebreaks to protect sage grouse habitat. Researchers have also been working in Nevada to create cattle-grazed firebreaks and have had good success thanks to plenty of fencing. Current research includes using “virtual fencing” to manage and move livestock. Cattle wear collars that track their locations, and are signaled to move with buzzers. The system uses smart phones to track and manage livestock. Now that’s something that wasn’t available 68 years ago! You can see an example of what this new system is based on here:

https://onpasture.com/2014/08/04/fenceless-grazing/

Burning

Burning has a definite influence on grazing distribution in at least two instances. Prescribed burning on longleaf pine ranges in the South is a forestry practice to reduce brown spot leaf rust on young pine and to reduce the hazard of wildfires (Campbell and Cassady, 1951). Burning removes old rough grass and makes new succulent grass available to range cattle. Uncontrolled burning has been partially replaced by the practice of prescribed burning on areas which would not be damaged by either burning or grazing. Over-utilization is thus avoided on critical areas.

On fenced units in the longleaf pine forest ranges, proper grazing eliminates the need for burning to reduce roughs. Under proper grazing, a serious rough never develops and all other good practices can be used to get uniform range use.

Second, burning is practiced widely in the salt marsh ranges along the Gulf Coast. These ranges are seasonal, more because of mosquitoes than growing conditions and in general, are not grazed from mid-April until mid-October. Ranges are commonly burned between August and November to remove the rank top growth which accumulates during the summer. Ranges are never completely burned every year but are burned “patchy”. The new young growth on burned areas is favored by livestock during the winter months. The unburned “rough” furnishes some protection and serves as bed grounds.

Marsh ranges are burned only when the ground surface is covered with water. If burned during dry periods, extensive damage to the plant roots takes place and in some areas, the organic soils burn out to considerable depth.

Well-managed ranges, burned every other year and grazed for the six months grazing period, have remained in excellent condition. Judicious location of these burns is very helpful in getting uniform range use.

Sixty-eight years later….

Patch burn grazing as described here is not as widely practiced. Kay Koger is bringing it back at the Homestead Ranch on the grasslands of Kansas. You can read more about her work here:

https://onpasture.com/2020/04/20/patch-burning-means-fewer-fences-better-grazing-management-and-improved-wildlife-habitat/

Summary

Uniform and proper use allows maximum sustained harvest of forage by livestock. Many practices being used by ranchers to get uniform use of ranges are not new, but have been adapted to modern ranching operations.

Stock water facilities, including temporary types, fencing and herding are the most widely used practices which contribute to uniform range use. Salt, salt-meal mixtures and supplemental feeds placed away from water provide flexibility because they can be moved as grazing conditions change. Increasing accessibility of ranges relieves use of overgrazed areas and makes additional
forage available to livestock.

The size of the grazing unit, the number of range sites, the range condition pattern and the habits of range livestock are the points a range man must study to determine what practices will help him achieve uniform use on any range.

I hope this series has given you some interesting things to think about, even if it’s just the old saying that everything old is new again.

Download the full article for a list of articles cited.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

1 Comment

  1. John Marble says:

    As anyone familiar with my lifestyle will tell you, I am not a big fan of technology. Mostly, I range from ambivalent to downright hostile toward modern gadgetry. That said, when it comes to what we were trying to accomplish 68 years ago (and today) I think the ranching industry has simply not paid adequate attention to two tech opportunities: fencing and water. When I look around the country, I see very little interest in installing the infrastructure necessary for managed grazing. Let’s face it, a few thousand dollars spent on smooth wire and black poly pipe can radically improve the economics and ecological function of our lands. It is a mystery to me why so few ranchers accept this “new” technology. Tradition? Laziness? Ignorance?

    Scratching my head here. I welcome any possible explanations.

    John Marble
    Crawfordsville, Oregon

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