Cattle Feeding: Is Your Grazing, “Planned” Grazing?

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What is grazing? It’s a management system that balances the needs of the plant community, the needs of the grazing stock, and the desires of the manager. It is a complex system that turns the captured solar energy in plants, into a valuable cattle product for our benefit.There is much talk these days about mob grazing, rotational grazing, set stocking, etc., that we may forget that it’s not how we graze, but the outcomes of our grazing program that are important. You do need to use the right tools to get the right/desired results. Each of the many grazing systems: mob, rotational, management intensive grazing (MIG), deferred rotational, set stocked, etc., have a place with various benefi ts and costs, but there is no one right way to graze. However, there is a best way for you to graze to achieve your goals. Just like other tools, the idea is to pick the right tool for the right job to achieve your goals. You could drive a railroad spike with a tack hammer, but it would take a while, and you can pound tacks with a sledge, but I expect a little collateral damage may occur. That’s why the idea of “planning” your grazing is so important.

When you are dealing with something as complex as “grazing”, you will never get it “right”, however, every year should be a step in the direction of your desired outcomes or goals. That’s the really neat thing about grazing, we don’t plant a new crop every year, we “influence” this year’s crop of forage for this year’s animal performance. At the same time, we are shaping the landscape (organic matter levels in soil, the density and diversity of pasture plants, the riparian areas, etc.) we want in the distant future. Improvement can seem slow, but change happens in small steps. Again, another reason why you need to plan your grazing program.

Get started with planned grazing in small steps.

Step One is to identify one thing you feel is a “weak link” in your grazing operation. Here are a few examples. I would like to have pasture for 30 days more grazing at the end of grazing season, or I always have a “summer slump” and overgraze my pastures and then run out of grass, or maybe, I would like to see better animal performance (fatter cows, heavier calves, more pounds of gain per acre). Just turn those weak links around, and you have a goal for the coming grazing season. For example, I want to extend my grazing season by 30 days in the fall.

Step Two is to answer your question. For example, how could you extend your grazing season by 30 days? You probably have some good ideas. You could check with some local experts, and you need to do a bit of “research” to look at all the possible options. When you have a good list of options, sort that list for those things that; (a) would work on your farm, (b) are cost effective, and most importantly (c) you would be willing to do.

Step Three is to put action into the plan. If you are going to extend your grazing season by 30 days by using higher stock density and more frequent moves, what exactly does that mean? What needs to happen? When is it going to happen, and who is going to do it? This point is important, because a lot of great plans are “dreamed up”, but if you don’t decide who is going to do it and when and how are you going to pay for it, a lot of what starts out as goals, are just dreams, an exercise in wishing.

Step Four is to identify how you will know if your plan worked. If you wanted to extend your grazing by 30 days, that’s 30 days beyond when? Let’s say you usually start winter feeding on November 1 in an average year, and with your new plan you are shooting for winter feeding to not start until December 1. Very few years are average, and therefore, you do need to adjust the results to actual growing conditions for each year. The really important thing is that you look back to see if your plan had the desired effect. Then, you take that information and make a new plan for the coming year and maybe even add in a plan for a 5 year goal.

You will never improve your grazing program, no matter how often you move the animals around, until you set down some clear goals, a plan on how to achieve them, and a way to monitor your success. It is really helpful if you write down a few things. Just start with a blank pad and put in 1 to 2 goals for this year, and maybe a long term goal. Under each goal, put in the what, when, who, and how much information. Keep it short and simple. The key is to make sure the “dream” has real “legs”, and then post this “plan” where you can check it often. The plan doesn’t have to go on the refrigerator door, but don’t, and I repeat, don’t bury it in a drawer. You are building a better grazing program and this plan is your blueprint. Check it often, just like you would check a blueprint when constructing a building.

Grazing is an extremely complex interaction of plant, animals, and people that is highly dependent on the weather, which we know is highly variable. Most people have given up and don’t have a plan. They just do the “best job they can” with their grazing. I think even having a simple plan can put us one or maybe two steps closer to truly improving our grazing systems and providing us with more profi t, more fun, and the future landscape we desire. Give your grazing a little respect, have a plan.

Source: Dr. Ben Bartlett, Michigan State University Extension Beef/Dairy Educator



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