The success of your summer grazing program starts now—long before the first green grass sprouts in your pastures. Developing a plan for grazing can help you gain the most out of your forage, and maximize the profits from your cattle. A planned grazing program can also help increase the quality and nutritional value of your grass, while providing for improved long-term stewardship of your grazing land.
A grazing plan may include several different strategies, and should contain a provision for drought. But many ranchers are finding that traditional grazing methods provide little flexibility, and pastures recover slowly after the stress of a drought. Range and pasture research at many of America’s land grant universities shows management intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) provides several advantages over traditional grazing methods. And producer adoption of MIRG has shown steady growth over the past decade.
Similar to problems facing beef producers, America’s dairy farmers are under increasing pressure to cut costs and maximize efficiency, which has led many to re-examine their grazing programs. Many of today’s dairy farmers, especially younger producers, are turning to management intensive rotational grazing.
Research conducted by the University of Wisconsin found that just over 7 percent of the dairy farms in Wisconsin were using MIRG in 1993, but the number doubled to 14 percent by 1995. And by 1999 the number had more than tripled to 22 percent of all Wisconsin dairy farms, matching the percentage of dairies using pastures non-intensively. (Fifty-six percent of Wisconsin dairies use full-confinement systems.) And the research suggests that grazers have become more successful at maximizing the total feed they obtain from their pasture systems.
The Wisconsin studies also indicate use rates of MIRG are dramatically higher among beginning dairy farmers. A 1996 survey found 30 percent of dairy farm entrants using MIRG practices, while overall MIRG rates in 1996 were just 14.6 percent.
Simply stated, controlled grazing (or management intensive grazing) is the management of forage with grazing animals. It limits access to grazing by subdividing pastures with permanent and temporary fences. This allows cattle to harvest feed efficiently while encouraging plant variation, higher nutritional value, a longer grazing season and lower maintenance costs. When compared to controlled grazing practices, traditional continuous grazing methods prove inefficient in terms of energy, production and operation.
Jim Gerrish, University of Missouri Forage Systems Research Center, Lineaus, Mo., says, “The largest expense in forage production is the land value itself. The way to reduce this cost is to produce more pounds of saleable beef per acre.”
And the best way to produce more beef per acre is through a MIRG system. Simply rotating cattle through pastures may benefit forages, but to gain higher yields and reduce cost, you must manage all the factors affecting the grazing system.
The first step in determining if a management intensive grazing system is applicable to your operation is to understand how plants, soil and animals affect each other.
When plants are overgrazed the lack of sun-catching leaves hinders root growth, stunting plant and leaf regrowth. If overgrazed too long, a plant will eventually die. Regrowth during the hot, dry summer season affects the amount of forage available going into the winter months. By extending your grazing season even for a few weeks, you can save money on winter feed costs.
Because cattle are selective grazers, specific plant species can be overgrazed even though other feed is available. Eventually, the preferred species are eliminated, which reduces diversity in your pastures. The key to increasing the diversity and quality of your pasture is to force the cattle to graze evenly and then give the forage plants a physiological rest so that all plants have a chance to regrow.
Why is diversity important? One benefit is the increased density of both warm- and cool-season plants. Multiple-season plant growth in spring, summer and fall helps lengthen the grazing season. Plant diversity also increases ground cover on a pasture where bare spots exist. A greater diversity of plants increases the chance something will grow in all soil types present in your pasture.
A big cost benefit of maintaining a variety of grasses and legumes is the reduced need for nitrogen fertilizer. “By implementing a rotation system, you will be able to maintain legumes, which will eliminate the yearly nitrogen fertilizer cost,” says Dr. Gerrish.
And there are additional benefits to management intensive rotational grazing. “You have a known amount of reserve in front of you, so you have greater control through periods of drought. Knowing how much feed you have allows you to adjust your stocking rate to fit,” says Stan Parsons, founder of the Ranching For Profit School in Albuquerque, N.M. He also notes that because the animals are always moving from new growth to new growth, they are always on good feed.
Basics of a MIRG system
- Begin with resource evaluation. What land, labor and capital resources are available to you? You’ll need adequate land to create a minimum of 8 to 12 paddocks. Adequate rest periods will depend on the type of forage in your area of the country and average rainfall amounts. For reference, an average pasture rest period in the Midwest should be 30 to 35 days.
- Water is critical to the success of any controlled grazing system. Almost all grazing systems are developed around water—whether it is already available or some capital expense is required to add watering sites to your paddocks. Strategic placement of water sources can help increase the uniformity of grazing and manure distribution. Ideally, animals should be within 600 to 800 feet of water.
- Plan perimeter and interior fencing. Perimeter fences should be permanent. Interior paddocks can be created using temporary electric fence created with polywire or polytape.
- Stocking rates. You may be able to increase stocking rates with MIRG, but not immediately. Start with a stocking rate that would be equal to or less than a rate for continuous grazing. Increase the stocking rate only gradually after you have seen the results. However, low stocking rates can also prove detrimental. Too few cattle in a pasture causes uneven harvesting of forage. Some plants are grazed too short while others are not grazed at all and lose quality.
- Managing the rotation. While the basic principles of intensive grazing apply to all areas of the country, there are obviously no set guidelines dictating paddock size, stocking rates or move times. Common guidelines for cow-calf operations are to move every three or four days. For stocker operations, daily moves will provide the best gains by providing the highest quality, most palatable forage. However, grazing periods will need to be adjusted as weather and other seasonal conditions dictate. Dry conditions will increase recovery time.
Implementing a management intensive rotational grazing system on your ranch can help you lower costs and improve forage conditions. But it is important to remember that even though rotational, intensive or time-controlled grazing principles can be applied to any grazing operation, some regions are much more forgiving of management errors in using the existing
resources more intensively.
For more information from the Missouri Forage Systems Research Center log on to http://aes.missouri.edu/-fsrc/index.stm or visit the Texas A & M University site to see the publication “Grazing Systems for Profitable Ranching” at http://animal-science-extension.tamu. edu/publications/13296141-grazing-systems.pdf.