Roger Gates: Anticipate the upcoming growing season
January 14, 2011
Bitter cold temperatures are apt to remind us of how little control we have over the natural systems that are so vital to grassland livestock production. Perhaps it reinforces the importance of making careful plans to manage what we can control and to be prepared with contingencies for what we hope won’t happen, but is possible (bitter cold, blizzard, ice, flood, fire, hail, drought, disease, grasshoppers…).
Last week, Greg Lardy reminded us of the value of looking ahead to calving season. “Being prepared,” not only facilitates the execution of our management plans, it contributes to peace of mind as we anticipate future work and activity. Making time to “pause and plan” may never be trivial in busy ranch life, but perhaps it’s easier to work in the middle of winter.
I’d suggest that it’s never too early to anticipate the upcoming growing season and develop plans for allocation of your grassland resources. Having the plan written (or recorded electronically) in time to review and revise it will contribute to its usefulness. Perhaps suggesting a sequence to consider would be helpful:
• Review records from last year’s grazing. When was each pasture grazed? How long? How much was harvested? What was the condition of the vegetation at the end of the growing season (grazed too hard, just right, abundant growth)? Any special problems that need attention (weeds to control, erosion to be healed, burned area to be rested)? No information is more valuable in planning grazing than your own records of carrying capacity supported. For your own use, determining cow days per pasture is the best information available. Rainfall records are equally important to interpret the “grazing yield.”
• Review records from previous years. Are historical problems (a weed problem) responding to your management? Should this year’s grazing plan be modified to address such problems?
• Keep records. If you don’t have records to refer to, resolve to start! Reconstruct what happened last year as well as you can.
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• Identify exclusions, or time periods when particular pastures cannot be used. Surface water sources may only be available in spring, wildlife enhancement plans may require deferment, breeding plans (or those of your neighbor’s) may necessitate avoiding some pastures at certain times.
• Identify key pastures. These are pastures that must be used during a particular time period such as calving or shipping.
• Identify deferment pastures. These are pastures you want to receive deferment at a particular time, perhaps avoiding a pasture that was grazed hard last year until later in the growing season.
• Identify target pastures and timing. These are pastures you want to graze at a particular time. For example, if there is a flush of cheatgrass, you might want to graze a certain pasture as early as possible.
• Develop a livestock inventory. How many cows, bulls, yearlings or horses do you need to support? How many herds will that require? Finding ways to reduce the number of herds, at least for part of the season simplifies grazing patterns. (This step suggests the value of a plan for marketing livestock as well: What will you produce? What will you purchase? When? What will you sell? When?)
• Develop a grazing sequence. Avoiding “exclusions” and including “targets” allocate the animal days a pasture will support in a sequence that makes sense logistically. A ranch map will facilitate developing a logical sequence.
• Sleep on the plan.
• Share the plan with others who can review it.
• Revise the plan until it makes the most sense.
• Consider contingencies for extreme conditions (drought, hail, fire).
• Execute the plan.
• Record actual patterns and use.
Given that there’s never an “average year,” the plan will undoubtedly be modified. Carefully record what actually is accomplished, so that next winter, you’ll have all the information you need to review and evaluate what was actually done. Having the plan in place will facilitate decision making and communication about executing the plan. It will also greatly enhance the ability to avoid problems and capitalize on opportunities (if growing conditions are exceptional, perhaps one or more pastures can be left to stockpile and be used to run purchased stock or leased to others).
Spend some time reviewing, planning and revising. Spring will be here before you know it! Hope all your water lines are thawed!