From the April issue of Drovers CattleNetwork

Hopefully spring has arrived in most places — some earlier and some late — but the grazing season is in full swing unless you are in the Mediterranean climate zones of the West Coast and the growing season is winding down and you are headed into dormant-season grazing. If you are on the West Coast in California, it has been a real struggle to calculate stocking rates and grow forage for any dormant-season grazing.

The key to forage management is to have a plan. Here are a few tips to consider when you sit down to write or update your forage management plan.

  1. Know the needs of your plants. Photosynthesis requires leaf surface to convert sunlight into energy and plant growth. So don’t graze too early or you never catch up when the leave surface area is too small. When you leave an area, leave residual forage to protect the soil from wind and heat which will help to maintain plant and soil health.
  2. Know the nutritional needs of your stock.  This relates to their biological state, their size and body condition and your production goals for them. The average cow has gotten so much larger than she was even 20 years ago, and so many people haven’t adjusted the stocking rate accordingly. A standard amount of forage required by an animal unit for one month (AUM) is still based on a 1,000- to 1,100-pound cow with her calf. A 1,500-pound cow with a 600-pound calf at her side have a much different requirement than a 1,100-pound cow with a 400-pound calf. I certainly favor the smaller cow but just be sure you are adjusting for the forage requirements of your cattle.

The common belief that a stocker is 0.8 AUM of a cow depends a lot on what you expect that animal to gain. The greater the gain expectation, the more forage should be allocated.

  1. Plan for plant rest between grazing as much as possible.  The practice of set stocking and season-long grazing leads to poor plant health and reduced animal performance. This is the area that requires the most thought and planning. The proper rest period is dependent on the growth rate of forages. Slow-growing plants require a longer rest period than fast-growing plants, so that is why the grazing plan needs to have flexibility built into it to compensate for weather variations.
  2. Plan for the dormant season. The other key component in planning your grazing is to allocate a portion of the land to have enough available forage for the dormant season.  Whether that be standing, windrowed or bales left in the field, this will reduce the overall feed expense of putting up hay stacks and feeding. There is a lot of hay fed when grazing could occur, but this does require a plan.

The above are what I consider to be the basic issues in a grazing plan and every ranch, every year and every situation is different, but I hope this generates thought and questions that you will investigate. There is a lot of good literature and many seminars being held around the country, if needed.

Bottom line, like so many of our production strategies, you must monitor your plan and build in flexibility.