Are you GRAZING or just grazing?

Darrell's son Nick with a nice steelhead, even though it's not a brown trout
Darrell’s son Nick with a nice steelhead, even though it’s not a brown trout

My son, best bud from high school, and I went fishing one weekend on Lake Ontario for the big brown trout that normally come in close to shore that time of year and can be easily caught trolling minnow imitating lures in water from 8 to 30 feet deep. We spent hours and hours on the water looking for those big fish. We had two down riggers running lures down about 10-25 feet below the surface.  We had 4 lines off of planer boards running lures up to 75 feet each side of the boat, and we had two lines running directly behind the boat. We tried spoons, stick baits, and deep diving crank baits different lure colors and sizes. We had our depth finder and GPS unit giving us our location, water depth and temperature, the marine radio kept an eye on the weather for us, and the satellite radio entertained us with an endless assortment of tunes. We were FISHING! Or at least that is what we thought we were doing. As it turned out, what we were really doing was washing lures and “just fishing.”

Ken's steelhead - not bad at all!
Ken’s steelhead – not bad at all!

Although we caught a steelhead trout about 30 inches long, a Coho salmon of similar size, and a 20 inch smallmouth bass (all of which were really nice fish), we did not catch a single brown trout, which was what we were after.

We did not know that we had been “just fishing” until we got back to the Port of Oswego boat launch, and there was this charter boat captain with his 4 clients standing behind their morning catch of brown trout getting their pictures taken. While I did not count the fish, there were a bunch, and some were well over 10 pounds.

I met one of the charter boat clients on his way to his car in the parking lot and asked him about his fishing. He told us the captain had them fishing with downriggers set 30 feet deep in 60 feet of water, and all of the fish were caught on black and purple minnow imitating stick baits about 5 inches long.

While we had been out on the same water as these guys, doing pretty much what we thought was the same stuff as they had been doing, it was obvious they had been FISHING while we had been only “just fishing.” In our defense, we did catch some nice fish, just not what we were after.

So you are probably wondering by now what does a fish tale have to do with GRAZING….or is it grazing?

As it turns out, grazing and fishing have a lot in common in that it is generally not a matter of what you are doing, it is more about how you are doing it, when, and where.

Sure, I have had fishing days when throwing out a small blue and silver spoon and trolling it 150 feet behind the boat in 10-15 feet of water caught all of the brown trout and Coho salmon you could possibly want. On those days FISHING meant I did not have to do a lot to catch a lot of fish. And sure, there are days when turning your critters out on pasture without a plan…or a clue as to what you are really doing… turns out to be GRAZING. More often than not, however, it will turn out that you are “just grazing.”

Here’s how I learned that

Cornell SignWhen I started my career in grassland agriculture, I was simply looking for a summer job working out-of-doors.  As it turned out, I got a job at the now defunct Cornell University Hillside Pasture Research and Demonstration Project in Harford, NY.

The time was 1980, and at the time, we thought we were GRAZING. We were not.

In the first Cornell study I was involved with, we used 4-paddock rotational grazing systems (20 acres subdivided into 4-five acre paddocks). Our improved pastures were fertilized and limed to soil test specifications and seeded to either smooth bromegrass or smooth bromegrass with birdsfoot trefoil. Our benchmark or control pastures were not seeded or fertilized. They were just as Mother Nature created; an assortment of naturalized grasses, forbs, and shrubs. We grazed 20 cow-calf pairs on each pasture type with two replications of each treatment. We did not start grazing in the spring until the pastures were over a foot tall, we moved our cattle from paddock to paddock every 7 -10 days, and we routinely had cattle wallowing belly deep in grass.

During the May-June period, calf gains were about 2.2 -2.4 pounds a day. During the July – August period (as the grass got taller and browner) calf gains declined to 1.3 – 1.4 pounds a day.  During the September – October period (after the pastures had been clipped and were again shorter and greener) calf gains increased to around 2.0 -2.2 pounds a day.  Season-long average daily calf gains (1980-1984) averaged about 2.0 pounds per day, and weaning weights averaged 461 pounds.

Some thought we were GRAZING. I, however, did not.

The Hillside Pasture Research and Demonstration Project was just as the name implied. It was located on a hillside with slopes ranging from 0 to 40%. In my early years working on the project, I got to spend a great deal of time on a tractor with the front wheels dancing in the air as I drove up that hill brush hogging all of the grass the cattle would not eat, and on wet days, sliding back down it, at speed, with the tractor tires happily churning backwards. I called it “tractor skiing.” Had tractor skiing been an Olympic sport in 1980, I am confident the “miracle on ice” would not have seemed quite so miraculous. But I digress.

Keep in mind, this was just a summer job for me, and I was not in charge. I was simply following orders from someone who did not have to drive the tractor. In addition, I was so new to the grazing business I did not know what the impact of grass height was on animal performance. Like most, I am sure I assumed more grass was better than less. However, due to an unexpected change in personnel on the project, I got the chance to test that notion when I accepted the position of pasture research manager.

Our pastures in the early 1980s.
Our pastures in the early 1980s.

It was obvious, to me anyway, we were waiting too long to start grazing in the spring. When we waited until the grass was over a foot tall before we turned cattle out, by the time we finished grazing the first paddock, the grass in the remaining paddocks was so tall and rank, most of it would get peed on, pooped on, stomped on, and slept on but not eaten. Hence, the reason for getting good at tractor skiing.

We spent time, money, and effort to improve and increase the forage production on our pastures, so it really did not make any economic sense (or cents) to grow all of this grass and then just brush hog and leave it on the ground. With increasing plant height and age, brown leaves and stems increase, while the preferred green leaves and stems decrease. Thus when we had our cattle belly deep in grass, they were forced to sort through and selectively graze to find the “good stuff.” They took the best and left the rest. As the performance of our cattle was no better than on our control pastures, it was obvious we were not even recovering our improvement costs. Besides that, tractor skiing was not recognized as an Olympic sport, and nobody cared how good I was at it.

Changing Management Based on What Livestock Do Well On

Livestock prefer green leaves over green stems, green stems over brown leaves, and they prefer brown leaves over brown stems. This is because the food value is in the green, and in particular, in green leaf. This, by the way, is well documented in the scientific literature. It is not something I made up in a moment of panic while skiing down some pasture.

I surmised, if we provided our cattle with more of what they preferred to eat and less of what they did not want to eat, they would eat more and the performance of our cattle would increase, we would use more of what we actually grew, and somebody (me) would get to spend less white knuckle time honing my skiing skills. All we had to do was start grazing sooner in the spring and move cattle into paddocks where the grass was shorter rather than taller. And that is what we tried. I say tried because, at the time, we did not know. We were learning, and we used our cattle scale to monitor the results.

Our pastures in the late 1980s.
Our pastures in the late 1980s.

By the time the project ended in the early 90s, our pastures were mostly orchardgrass and white clover. The bromegrass and birdsfoot trefoil we started with was gone by the third year. We put in new water lines and fences so we could graze the upper steeper slopes separate from the lower less steep slopes. As tractor skiing never caught on as an Olympic sport, I no longer felt the need to maintain my skills. Thus we no longer brush hogged and wasted grass. When the grass started to get too tall to be efficiently harvested by the cattle, we simply took some of the paddocks, on the less steep slopes, out of the grazing rotation and mowed and baled them. We grazed our pastures using a 16-paddock rotational stocking method. We started grazing in the spring when the pastures were 4 to 6-inches tall, and we moved our cattle from paddock to paddock every 2 -3 days. Instead of routinely having cattle belly deep in grass, we routinely had cattle in grass 8 to 12 inches tall. Tractor skiing had become a sport of the past.

Our Scale Showed Our Improvements

Unless you have an honest method of measuring performance, there is no way to know if what you are doing is better or worse than doing something else. Thus, we did not guess about how our cattle were doing, we knew how our cattle were doing. We weighed them every 28 days.

As we changed from grazing tall grass, as we did in 1980-1984, to grazing shorter grass, as we did in 1985-1989, the average daily gain of our calves increased from 2.0 pounds per day to over 2.5 pounds per day, and our weaning weights increased from 461 pounds to 565 pounds. In addition, by improving the genetic merit of our cattle (selecting bulls with high growth and weaning weights) to use in conjunction with our improved pasture management, we were further able to increase the average daily gains of our calves to 2.76 pounds per day and weaning weights to 584 pounds.

Learning by doing and having the ability to monitor and evaluate changes in management protocols taught me a lot during the years I spent working on the project at Cornell. For example, although I learned to ski tractors down some really steep slopes, I also learned there was not a job market for tractor skiers. I also learned that like the difference between FISHING and fishing there is also a difference between GRAZING and grazing.

Why do you graze the way you graze?

Why you graze the way you graze is a personal decision based on whatever you choose to base your decision on. Some need to maximize production per animal, some need to maximize production per acre of pasture, some seek to optimize these things, some seek to build organic matter in the soil, some use grazing to keep land open, to reduce weeds, manage wildlife, reorder succession, or create a view.

There are many reasons why you do what you do. However, whatever you do, I encourage you to have both eyes open at the same time. One eye should be monitoring your animals, one should be monitoring your pasture plants, and both should be monitoring your land and your wallet. Be on the lookout for things like livestock losing condition, not breeding back, low milk production or not gaining weight, bare ground, soil erosion, silt in streams and ponds, plants that are not flourishing, and losses in plant diversity. All of these things are very likely the result of grazing rather than GRAZING.  Keep also in mind that due to differing objectives from one farm to the next, GRAZING on one farm may result in simply grazing on another.

And as for me, the next time I am out fishing on Lake Ontario, you can bet I am not going to let a certain charter boat get so far away from me that I can’t see (with a good pair of binoculars) what he is using to FISH with.  After all, FISHING without catching fish is just fishing.

Thinking about it

Here are some questions to consider as you think about whether you are GRAZING or grazing.

Do I have a way of measuring success?

If not, what could you measure that would tell you if what you are doing is better or worse than trying something else?

Do I have a way of monitoring animal productivity?

How am I tracking livestock condition, breed back and weight gain? What are the answers telling me about my grazing management?

Are there practices on my operation (like Darrell’s tractor skiing) that I could stop doing if I adjusted my grazing management?

On Pasture Resources for Thinking About This

John Marble has noticed that the latest competition is how many times a month/week/day a grazier moves their animals. But more moves aren’t necessarily a good measure of success.

How Often Should You Move Your Herd? Lifestyle and Economic Considerations for Designing your Grazing Program

Knowing something about grazing heights and recovery times is essential to giving livestock high quality grass while maintaining good forage production. Here’s an excellent series on that from Dave Pratt:

Rest is Not a 4-Letter Word – Timing for Pasture Recovery – Part 1

How Long Should a Pasture Recovery Period Be? – Part 2

2 thoughts on “Are you GRAZING or just grazing?

  1. What a fantastic article! It is easy to get caught up in all the bells and whistles of grazing while the basics are over looked. I see many graziers not practicing proper recovery and proper graze period for their environment. However, they are unaware that their system isn’t working because of superfluous technologies or gadgets.
    Like Darrell suggested, if you don’t have a metric to measure, it becomes easy to BS yourself into thinking what you are doing is working. For me, dollars per Acre is what I use to evaluate my grazing progress. That being said, there is a lot that is included in the evaluation (soil health, animal performance, family health, personal development, etc).
    There are two reasons I use $/ac to evaluate my progress. First, a ranch must first be profitable to be regenerative. Nobody wants to take over a place that is just a source of poverty, struggle, and hard work. Plus, if you can’t make enough to raise your family and make a mortgage payment you won’t be ranching for very long.
    The second reason is because it is my experience that when your land is increasing in productivity, all the other metrics improve. Soil health and the water cycle improves because you have more ground cover and you are keeping plants vegetative. Animal performance improves because they are grazing grass in the ‘Sweet Spot’ all season long. Wildlife becomes abundant because they know where the good grass is.
    When you have a quantitative metric as Darrell points out, you are able to see if you are accomplishing your goals. Just like the fishing analogy, Darrell’s group did not accomplish their goal of catching trout even thought they tried a whole host of techniques. Had they not seen the charter boat’s success they would not have known the reason for being unsuccessful was not because the fish were not biting, it was what they were doing or specifically, not doing.
    This often plays out in ranching. We experience some grazing success just like the fishing crew had some success; they did catch some pretty good fish, just not the intended target. Maybe we have more grass or better gains than our neighour, but is that success? Are we just trying to be better than our neighbour? I hope not!
    I completely agree with Darrell that each person must find a measurement that is quantifiable to see if we are going toward our goal. That metric may be different for each person and may change over time, but it is a great place to start to accomplish your goals.

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