Remember the R’s: Recover
Both plant leaves and roots need time to recover after grazing
Tanse Herrmann likes to relate the steps grazing managers take for healthy grasslands and soils to the things people do to stay healthy. In particular, the state grazinglands soil health specialist for NRCS in South Dakota sees parallels on the natural need for rest and recovery.
“When you undergo a surgical procedure, your doctor will prescribe rest to help you recover,” Herrmann says. “If you get too active too quickly, you’re likely to aggravate your injury, have a setback and extend the recovery time. The same thing happens with plants that are grazed before they have time to fully recover.”
“When pastures are repeatedly grazed without giving time to fully recover, roots don’t get the nutrients they need from photosynthesis, and they begin to shrink. As the roots are weakened, so is the plant. It’s a downward spiral that results in eventual plant death or the plant being overtaken by less desirable species.”
Recovered, Ready to Graze
Ranchers and farmers with experience in rotational grazing learn to recognize when plants are fully recovered and ready to graze again. “In general, that’s when your desired grass species are at the 4½ leaf stage, and about 8 inches tall,” Herrmann says. How long that recovery takes depends on soils, soil moisture, time of year, species, how short it was grazed, and other factors. “Recovery time will vary across the ranch,” he adds. “Grasses on uplands will typically be slower to recover than riparian areas, recovery will take longer during and after a drought, and well-managed grasslands with healthy soils will recover more quickly, too.”
Rotations the pathway to recovery
“Rotational grazing has worked great for us,” says John Shubeck, a farmer and cattleman from Centerville in eastern South Dakota. “This year we’ve been doing daily moves, just trying to better manage what the cows are eating and manage the grass, give it an opportunity to recover.”
“You see how the more you move the cows, the better the cows stay in condition, the better the grass and the ground stays in condition. It’s enhanced our profitability.”
Turn it on its head
In the spring, when plants are just beginning to grow, they’re extremely susceptible to overgrazing. Grazing too hard, too short early in the year can set back growth for the entire season. “So in most cases, you really want to avoid grazing hard in the spring,” Herrmann says. “On the other hand, you can intentionally overgraze if you have unwanted species you want to try to push out while you encourage desirable species. I’ve watched people severely graze bromegrass and Kentucky bluegrass pastures early in the spring. They graze it hard, early in the spring, intentionally grazing those early cool-season plants short. Then they rotate the animals out to let the desirable native, warm season species grow and mature before they are grazed.”
Shubeck says it was fun to watch that happen in one of his pastures. “This one piece of land we bought a few years ago, I started grazing specifically to get warm season species to come in. I would graze hard really early and then I’d pull the cows off in April. Then I’d bring them back in September or October, trying to get rid of that brome grass. It only took a couple of years and you just saw those native species explode. I saw lots of plants I didn’t even know were on the eastern side of South Dakota—they were just in the seed bank and started growing.”
“Our grasslands—the plants and the soils and biology below them—have been severely challenged with drought in 2021,” Herrmann says. “They need more rest and recovery time than normal—we shouldn’t expect full performance or production in 2022. It will be more important than ever in 2022 to rotate pastures so you can keep plants taller, to develop deeper roots and continue to recover,” he adds.
–USDA/NRCS, Conservation Districts of South Dakota, and the Grasslands and Soil Health Coalitions of South Dakota
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