Last week I got a press release from the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition. Written by Stan Wise, it has some great suggestions for things you can do right now to get a better start on next year’s grazing season. I’m sharing it here along with links to On Pasture articles that will help you take a deeper dive into some of the planning and thought necessary when you’re considering something new.
This is part of The Thinking Grazier, a category that includes longer pieces that give you things to think about and questions you can ask yourself to help you encourage your brain to consider new things.
PIERRE, SD – The first step in taking any new action is making a decision, and winter is perfect deciding weather. This time of year affords landowners a chance to take a breath, analyze what they have done in the past, and make a plan for the future of their operations.
“Now is a good time to kind of map out where you were this year and then figure out where you were at different times of the year in each of your pastures and then plan out the grazing for next year,” Natural Resources Conservation Service State Rangeland Management Specialist Emily Rohrer said.
She said that NRCS recommends three basic concepts for designing a grazing plan to improve rangeland diversity and health: Include time for pastures to rest in a grazing rotation, leave adequate grass stubble height, and change the season of pasture use.
“As you’re building your grazing plan, make sure you’re putting in that growing season rest so you’re not grazing one pasture for the whole green season. You give it some rest throughout the year,” Rohrer said. “We recommend between 30 and 45 days of growing season rest, at least.”
The 30 – 45 days rest recommendation is appropriate in some places. But rest requirements vary across seasons and landscapes. Tom Krawiec has some great tips about how to determine what recovery/rest requirements are for you.
Dividing rangeland into separate pastures allows ranchers to rotate their livestock between the pastures, meaning each individual pasture gets more rest time. This rest time is important so plants can recover and maintain optimal forage production. Rangeland that is overgrazed experiences a decline in forage production.
The rest time for pastures can vary depending on plant species, how much they are grazed and how much precipitation they receive. In drought years, pastures will need longer recovery times.
Of course, time of year that grazing occurs and the amount of rest between grazings all factor into the complex task a grazier has of managing stock. For more, check out this two-part series from Dave Pratt about grazing heights, rest and recovery times, and seasonality.
Maintaining Plant Health
Leaving adequate stubble height is another important practice for grassland health.
Rohrer said NRCS recommends the “take half, leave half concept – taking half of the production and leaving the other half for ground cover or for nutrient cycling and different biological processes.”
“Take half, leave half” is a general rule of thumb that was probably created because extension folks know how people operate. We don’t like to think too much because it’s hard. (This is not a slam. We’re just built this way.) But if you want to have really good grass, knowing something about how it grows will be helpful to making good decisions for it’s health. So here’s some help:
“If you graze a plant too much, the roots stop growing, and it takes a while for the roots to begin to grow again,” Rohrer said. “So, we always recommend not taking too much of that plant, or if you do take a lot, just allowing a lot of rest in order for the roots to begin growing again because the roots are the part of the plant that brings up water and nutrients so the grasses can grow.”
Here are examples of how grass grows when grazed to different heights:
Rohrer said that maintaining plant and root health and leaving enough stubble and residue in the pasture as soil cover stores more carbon in the soil and improves soil health.
“You are reducing erosion issues or soil crusting. Having a little bit of residue on the soil surface helps promote infiltration, so you could capture more rain,” Rohrer said.
Changing Season of Use
Rohrer said it’s important not to graze the same pastures at the same time every year.
“We recommend at least two weeks of difference in season of use, but more is better in most situations,” Rohrer said. “Grazing at different times of the year promotes different species. So then that can help promote more diversity in your range system. So, you’re not grazing the same plant year after year, which can degrade that plant over time. You’re giving it that rest when it needs it.”
Healthy rangelands are diverse ecosystems with complex relationships between plants, animals, fungi, and microbes both above and below the ground. This biodiversity is a benefit not only to wildlife but also to agricultural producers. Livestock need to graze on many different types of grasses, shrubs and forbs to get the nutrients they need to thrive.
By changing a pasture’s season of use every year, rangeland managers promote the biodiversity that will feed their livestock and improve their soil health. By improving their soil, ranchers can increase their rangeland’s water infiltration rates and storage capacities, which results in greater drought resilience.
Rohrer said that now is a good time for producers to predict next year’s forage production.
“You can figure out if you have enough feed for the year or if you need to use some of those non-traditional feed sources like cover crops or if you want to try bale grazing in the fall,” Rohrer said.
There are some tools to help ranchers do just that.
“We have the South Dakota Drought Tool that can predict or give you the current production based on the rainfall for the year. So, you can pick the closest weather stations to your operation and then run it, and it’ll give you kind of an estimate of production for the year,” Rohrer said. “If it’s in a drought, you can reduce stocking rates, or if it’s above normal, maybe you might think about buying some stockers or something like that.”
Drought is not if, but when. So it’s always helpful to have a plan in your pocket that you can turn to when you need to make the bad better. Here’s a free resource from On Pasture.
“We also have the South Dakota Grazing Tool. It helps you create a forage inventory and an animal balance. So, you’re balancing how many animals you have with how much forage you have so you’re not overgrazing,” she said. “And then it has a couple of different cool grazing plan sheets in there to help you build a grazing plan.”
If you’re not in South Dakota, you just need to do a little more checking to get the info you need. First, check the U.S. drought monitor for drought status near you. Once there, click on the main map to get a closer look at your area.
Next, visit the the Web Soil Survey site provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Using this tool, you can find out how much forage your property generally produces under drought, average, and wet conditions. Here are instructions on how it works:
“NRCS offers free resources and free technical assistance for producers. They can come in and ask for help creating a grazing plan, or we do have some financial resources available,” Rohrer said. “If they want to develop more water in a pasture or cross-fence something so they can put more rest into the rotation, we have financial assistance programs that can help with that, as well.”
This is a great time to start a relationship with experts in your area, or enhance those you already have. Set up a time for a coffee. Invite them to your place to take a look and share lunch or a snack with you. Eating together is one of the ways humans make better connections.
The South Dakota Soil Health Coalition also offers free resources, technical assistance, and some cost-share opportunities for implementing best land management practices. To learn more these resources, visit www.sdsoilhealthcoalition.org or contact the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition at email@example.com or 605-280-4190.