Pasture quality improved by higher grazing densities over shorter periods | TSLN.com

Pasture quality improved by higher grazing densities over shorter periods

Rainfall is undeniably a massive factor in pasture quality, but ranchers possess a level of control over their grass quality.

Cattle can be used to effectively improve grasses in a brittle environment, which is an arid climate containing a wet season and a dry season, and the type of climate found in the western United States.

"The goal of a grazing management plan is to get those pastures as vigorous and productive as they can be while cattle thrive," said Dallas Mount, University of Wyoming Extension Livestock Educator based out of Wheatland, Wyoming. He also has a small grazing operation with his family in Wheatland.

"Ideally have each plant bitten then fully recover before being bitten again," Mount said. "Overgrazing is biting a second time before being allowed to recover."

“Indicators of too much rest are an increase in spacing between plants, stale gray clumps of grass, decline in habitat quality, loss of species diversity, fire hazard and a shift to a less desirable ecological state. ... Consider the fenced right of way along roadways which have been ungrazed for many years. Walk out in the grass and study plant spacing. Although fallen weathered grass is covering much of the ground, a little investigation often shows the trend in plant spacing and associated indicators is moving in the wrong direction.” JD Williams, manager of Four Three Land and Cattle

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JD Williams, manager of Four Three Land and Cattle, uses rotational grazing and frequently moves herds to optimize grass use and quality.

"Management of grasslands is usually driven by production or conservation," he said. "Disciplined management in the relatively shallow topsoil zone influences the effectiveness of the rain that falls."

Mount recommends looking at it from a "plant-by-plant perspective, not pasture-by-pasture. Allow adequate rest," he said. "Rest that counts is when they're growing."

Taking livestock out of pastures that don't require rest due to the current inability to grow is unnecessary. Rest only counts when the plants have the opportunity to grow.

"If we take animals out the first of October, then put them in the first of May, the grass would have long months of rest, but no meaningful rest," Mount said. "The rest that matters is during growing season, rapid-growth season."

The amount of time it take for plants to grow back during late April to mid-June is much less than the more dormant slower growth time from July until spring again.

"As a rule of thumb, during spring months and rapid-growth, 60 to 90 days is adequate rest for rangeland plants," Mount said. "During mid-summer, four to five months is required, if they even recover at all."

Williams said the rest allows the roots to recover as much as what can be seen aboveground.

"When leaves and stems grow above ground equal amount of roots grow below ground," he said. "Continual grazing does not allow the plant's roots to recover from past harvest before the top is clipped again. Indicators of not enough rest are an increase in bare ground between plants, loss of species diversity, decline in habitat quality, and increased erosion."

Mount gives an example of how overgrazing can occur, even if there is seemingly enough grass to host the amount of animals present.

"We're trying to avoid second bite, so during the rapid growth if we're in a pasture for seven to ten days, it's very likely animals will regraze plants," he said. "Around the tank, an animal may bite lush green plant, then come back a few days and bite it again if there's been some regrowth."

One solution Mount suggests is higher densities of stock in pastures so they "graze the less desirable, big wolfy plants, at the same time allowing all plants the opportunity to recover," Mount said. "If ranchers want to increase the rest period, the greatest point of leverage is combining herds and running fewer herds."

He said ranchers often have, for example, "middle aged cows here, heifers there, horses, granny cows, bulls; five to six herds," Mount said. "Ranchers can make huge strides if they cut that in half or maybe more. Now all of a sudden we've combined these herds; we've automatically shortened the grazing period and increased the rest period. That change is often the change of greatest leverage."

Adequate water sources need to be considered, Mount said.

"A rancher probably will need to address water or pumping capacity," he said. "This is not always free, but it is the lowest cost strategy. Once you've done that step, look into fences. Start with combining herds."

His other solution for animals overgrazing is shortening the graze period in a particular pasture by dividing pastures, where possible.

He said to imagine a pasture's four corners and if the water source is in the middle of the pasture, the stock may never reach those corners.

"If you divide that pasture into four blocks, you'll graze the corners better if the water is still in the middle," Mount said. " You balance the graze period with infrastructure."

It needs to be cost-effective, Mount said, "It may not make sense for the ranch to split up their pastures into one-day grazing structure in a low rainfall environment; it's too expensive. We're balancing it with economic reality; if I spend $100,000 on this project, what's the payback? It should be a one- to three-year payback."

Too much rest from grazing in brittle rangelands also causes damage.

"Historically, range management decisions have been guided by succession theory, which espouses a linear relationship between stocking rate and range health," Williams said. "This holds true in non-brittle environments but experience has shown that over time brittle rangelands degrade when grazing is deferred. Without the stimulation of grazer's hooves, dead grass eventually falls over but cannot be incorporated into the soil surface."

Williams said if there is too much rest in pastureland it is evident upon inspection.

"Indicators of too much rest are an increase in spacing between plants, stale gray clumps of grass, decline in habitat quality, loss of species diversity, fire hazard, and a shift to a less desirable ecological state," he said.

"If you look out there and there's a lot of leftover plant material, you can increase your stocking rate or same number of animals for longer," Mount said.

Williams offered a situation in which to observe over-rested plants.

"Consider the fenced right of way along roadways which have been ungrazed for many years. Walk out in the grass and study plant spacing. Although fallen weathered grass is covering much of the ground, a little investigation often shows the trend in plant spacing and associated indicators is moving in the wrong direction," he said.

Over-rested plants may exist in pastures that aren't stocked with enough animals in short periods.

"Crested Wheatgrass can be found in big clumps with lots of bare ground between them. If we put grazing animals in the pasture in high densities, we will decrease the amount of bare ground and increase health and productivity," Mount said. "Over-rest and overgrazing can happen side by side; one plant will be overgrazed and the plant next to it is not bitten at all."

"Disciplined, concentrated grazing management increases ground cover, decreases erosion, increases biodiversity, and increases overall production," Williams said. "Land managers have never had a better understanding of using these tools and techniques to meet our goals. Grazing animals are still the most sustainable land management tool we have."

"Grazing animals are nature's gardeners," Williams said, quoting John Muir, author of My First Summer in the Sierra, "They prune, mulch, fertilize, and softly till dormant seeds into the soil crusts."

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