Expert says plan your pastures and save yourself some headaches

Heavy seeding and a weed control strategy geared to specific pasture conditions are key for grazing consultant and rancher Graeme Finn

You can’t just let your cows loose on a piece of grass without proper planning and knowledge. “When I take over land, I assess it and see where we need to go,” grazing consultant Graeme Finn said at the recent Western Canada Grazing Conference.

“If we have weed issues, then we control them with chemicals or grazing. Or start from scratch with a new forage stand.”

The Crossfield rancher direct seeds all his pasture, beginning either with a burn-off or direct seeding without weed control if he has some knowledge of the pasture. The best time for weed control is in the fall when the plant is ready to go dormant, because more weeds will die in the fall than in the spring, he said.

Finn also recommends seeding at a depth of half an inch, unless the pasture is broad leaf annuals. Finn favours a heavy seeding rate — if the recommended rate is 10 pounds an acre, he’ll up that by another five pounds.

“When you’re direct seeding into soil, 15 pounds an acre is great. If you’re floating it on, go another three pounds heavier.”

Under-seeding is one of the worst things that can be done to a pasture, since they are generally in use for about 15 years, he said.

“It’s going to cost you between $60 and $65 an acre, so you might as well seed it right,” he said. “That way you’ll be ahead in 10 years time, and you won’t have to worry about weeds coming back in.”

Finn leaves some shelterbelts on his land because they catch moisture and offer some wind protection, which are major benefits in drier years. He doesn’t graze cattle in the first year in order to foster strong plant growth and root development.

“If you have a great summer and not a lot of burden on the young seedlings, then you can use it for stockpile grazing in the winter,” he said.

In the second year, the pasture is put into normal grazing rotation.

“It’s so simple to cut a quarter of land into four chunks,” said Finn. “If you have good management practices and rotational grazing, your pastures will get stronger and healthier and will last longer.”

Cattle do well on low-fibre, high-protein forage, and will gain better when grazing less mature plants, he added.

“One of the things we see is that people get complacent with their grazing,” he said. “Summer comes around, people get lazy, and they go on holidays and don’t shift the animals enough.”

Finn grazes legumes and uses an alfalfa, sainfoin and vetch blend, which is available from most seed companies. Legumes can be planted into sparse grass, while sanfoin and vetch offer a buffer against the possibility of bloating from alfalfa. Every year, Finn chooses a couple of legume based paddocks to graze once with the yearlings. Then his older herd of cows comes in and feeds on them later in the year, distributing pods and seeds.

“Sainfoin and vetch are the easiest things to distribute — we’ve got legumes appearing in places that we haven’t even distributed them.”

Cows can get weeping eyes when the seeds of brome and orchard grasses mature and go to seed.  Brome and orchard grasses have large, hairy seeds that can get stuck in the eyes of cattle.

Using legumes in the pasture improves soil fertility, while having multiple species in the pasture helps spread out the insect burden, he said.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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