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Grass is your foundation, but great grazing doesn’t happen by itself

Irricana rancher Doug Wray intensively manages his five dozen paddocks and makes their health his top priority

After two decades of refining his grazing plan, Doug Wray knew long before the snow melted which of his 60 paddocks would be the first to see cows.

The Irricana rancher also has a rough plan for all of his 2,000 acres of pasture for the rest of spring and into summer — but Mother Nature always gets the final say on his grazing plan.

“The big thing is the adaptive part,” said Wray. “When it doesn’t rain, your plans start to change. And when it does rain, your plans start to change.”

The goal, after all, is maximizing the amount of grass — something Wray started focusing on 20 years ago.

“It started with attending a Jim Bauer Pasture School followed by Ranching for Profit one winter,” said Wray. “Coming out of that, you’re pretty much convinced that’s the pathway forward.” That path led him out of mixed farming and towards a new goal.

“I wanted to make strides and pro­gress in management, skills, and ideas as opposed to input costs.”

Having a grazing plan is the foundation of that.

Obviously, you need some sort of plan to manage several dozen paddocks, but what are key aspects of a grazing plan?

Flexibility is key, said Wray, a nationally known grazing advocate who helped found the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association and was its longtime chair.

You should not only make changes if something isn’t working but also constantly try new things to see if you can improve things that are.

“You don’t get stuck in that same rut which becomes part of declining productivity.”

Proper record-keeping is also essential so you can see what was done in previous years, what was successful, and what didn’t work so great. ‘Analyze and adapt’ is Wray’s method. Early on he said his biggest criticism of himself was, “I should have moved those cattle quicker.”

Having photos can be a lot of help, and so can maps.

“I’m a visual person, and we write (our cattle moves) on the map,” said Wray, noting grazing apps are useful tools for keeping and organizing your records.

This pasture is ideal for early-season grazing — the mix of green shoots and old growth “creates a nice transition from dried feed to lush green grass.”
photo: Courtesy Doug Wray

Attitude also affects how well your grazing plan is going to work for you.

Wray’s attitude is that he needs to manage his grassland as intensively or better than his neighbours manage their grain. Don’t think grass productivity can’t keep up with grain productivity, he said.

“But it’s managing it with that same intensity to get all you can out of it, like the canola and wheat acres are managed.”

That starts before you turn the cows out.

“This time of year, the biggest question is, ‘How soon can we get out there?’” Wray said in an interview just prior to this spring’s quick melt.

But producers really need to look at what condition the pasture is in first, he said. Wray deliberately manages some paddocks for early-season grazing (which is usually early to mid-May).

“We turn out onto something that hasn’t been grazed since early to mid-August,” he said. “It has some growth going into winter. When (the cattle) get into the green growth that’s coming, they’re taking half a mouthful that’s green and half that’s old growth. It creates a nice transition from dried feed to lush green grass.”

Pasture priorities

Calving date is another key piece.

“Strategically, we’re breeding to calve May 1,” he said.

Part of his herd calves while they are still feeding hay or swath grazing. Once calving is in full swing, the cows are calving on pasture and green grass. This has benefits for both cow and calf — matching forage availability to the cows’ milk production, and providing clean calving grounds to minimize scours.

“We’ve got our whole production system lined up to maximize our days grazing and minimize the days we’re feeding,” said Wray.

The most obvious benefactor of a grazing plan is the pasture.

In Wray’s paddocks he has some old stands of grass-legume mixed pastures which he says “is not normal.” But the way he manages his pastures contributes to the longevity of this mix.

“We intensive graze for two or three days, give the paddock a month and a half off, do it again, and then another rest, and maybe capture a little more in the dormant season, as fall closes in. This has been very good for those pastures.”

To maintain productivity, he only grazes — never hays — them. And pastures aren’t old hayfields.

“(With haying) you haul away all that initial burst of energy. When the productivity starts to decline, you turn it into a pasture, and I think you compromise the long-run productivity by doing that. We planned them to be pastures and managed them as such right from the start.”

Monitoring soil moisture levels is also essential.

Wray tracks moisture and this not only gives him an idea of how much rainfall to expect (on average), but allows him to predict future growth of grass.

“I’ve got 20 years of rainfall records, just by reading a rain gauge,” Wray said. “We’re getting a pretty good sense of what rain will bring us given the condition of our pastures and where we are going forward.”

Think long term

While the end goal is producing beef, Wray doesn’t take shortcuts.

“We’re not a 300-cow ranch come hell or high water — if we don’t have the grass, we’re going to change that number to match the grass,” he said. “We do everything we can to protect the health of those pastures, especially through drought.”

Two decades of working on his grazing plan has given Wray a different perspective.

He talks of how “the grass really likes” long rest periods between the two or three quick and intensive grazing periods each season. He likes to cover all his paddocks one time before the end of June to take advantage of the quick early growth of the cool-season grasses.

“The second pass tends to be a little slower, but we’re through it by the end of September, at least. The third time will depend upon the regrowth in the fall.”

Smaller paddocks and short grazing periods give him a more accurate read. For example, if he puts 250 to 300 pairs on 20 acres and they last two days, that’s quite a bit different than three days. Either way, it’s easy to do the math on how long the recovery period should be.

“You have a really accurate sense where you are — as opposed to turning those same 300 cows into a section of grass, and trying to figure out how long it might last.”

Wray has some suggestions for those new to developing a grazing plan or producers wanting to revamp an existing one.

First, take advantage of tours and workshops. He said there is a lot of talk these days about soil health and carbon sequestering, having grazing animals is critical to that area.

Second, find a mentor. “Find someone who is doing it whom you know and trust and then have conversations with them. Try and learn what they know,” he said. “Have someone you can phone up and say, ‘This is what I’m seeing, what do you think?’”

Third, remember range management is both a science and an art. Training your eye to recognize utilization levels and knowing different plant stages takes time.

“I walked around with a pasture stick (a measurement tool to determine utilization and height of plants) for the first three or four years,” said Wray. “I was constantly sticking it on the ground and thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got this much height and I think we’ve got this much left to graze.’

“Just kind of training my eye.”

Finally, remember there’s a reward for knowing your grass — and all that moving of cattle.

“It is a way to make the land more productive and the cattle more productive along with it. That’s something people need to consider. There is money to be made by doing it.”

About the author

Contributor

Jill Burkhardt, her husband, Kelly, and their two children, own and operate a mixed farm near Gwynne, Alberta. Originally hailing from Montana, she has a degree in Range Management from Montana State University. Jill’s agricultural passions are cattle and range management but she enjoys writing and learning more about all aspects of farming.

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