Grazing management is your best – and cheapest – pasture input

Grazing management can produce significant pasture health 
and productivity increases without breaking the bank

cattle grazing on a pasture
Reading Time: 3 minutes

I’ve been studying and practising grazing management for more than two decades and have always been intrigued by how it allows you to increase pasture productivity with few other inputs.

At times, I’ve resorted to adding nitrogen fertilizer, spreading pig manure, harrowing, and clipping thistles. For some pastures, it seemed like the only thing to do was to break them up and start over — a very expensive proposition.

But I’ve begun to see that no matter what you do, a pasture will soon be underproductive and weed infested again without proper grazing management. Usually that leads to breaking up the land and starting over once again — and so the expensive, unhealthy cycle continues.

On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly seen how appropriate grazing management improves pasture health and productivity without expensive inputs. Now, I’ve been told by many pasture owners that they don’t have time to set up electric fences and move animals often enough to get improved results. But I maintain the time and effort put into the right grazing management strategies gives you the biggest bang for your buck over any other input you could choose to use.

Managing that first round of grazing in spring, when the fast growth period is just getting going, is of utmost importance. During that first round, you need to move your herds fast enough so you can hardly tell they grazed a paddock.

Consider these numbers from Lee Manske, a range scientist at North Dakota State University’s Dickinson Research Extension Center.

“When 25 per cent of the grass tillers leaf area is removed during the first grazing period, the quantity of secondary tillers increases 38 per cent during that same growing season, and increases 64 per cent to 173 per cent during the second growing season,” says Manske. “When 50 per cent of the grass tillers leaf area is removed during the first grazing period, the quantity of secondary tillers decreases 53 per cent that same growing season and decreases 63 per cent to 144 per cent during the second growing season.”

That’s huge! And it shows why you need to get things right in that first month of grazing each spring. Once you’ve done that, you can relax your management if need be.

High stock density grazing for short periods, affectionately called “mob grazing” by many, can have an amazing effect on pasture health and productivity as long as the recovery period is sufficiently long. Some successful mob grazers have made a nice speaking career of talking about their results at various seminars and conferences across North America.

Portable electric fencing systems make intensive grazing simple, quick, and inexpensive. A single twisted or braided twine with aluminum or stainless steel wires in it and held up by step-in posts will suffice. Such fences are easily rolled up on readily available reels and can be moved in minutes each day. I can take down and set up a quarter-mile-long fence in just 20 minutes.

Winter grazing of stockpiled forages is another way to boost pasture productivity. Managing grazing during the growing season to save large amounts of high-quality standing forages for winter use doesn’t import organic materials and nutrients. But if done right, it will improve plant diversity and health; build organic matter; and improve the soil’s nutrient- and water-holding capacity.

Others have boosted pasture productivity by bale grazing on pastures in winter. This works especially well on pastures where organic matter and nutrients are seriously depleted. (Rolling out or shredding bales distributes waste materials, manure, and urine more evenly.) If combined with good grazing management during the growing season, these winter grazing strategies can have great and sustainable results.

These grazing management strategies can produce significant pasture health and productivity increases without breaking the bank. If you’re interested in learning how to get this working for you on your farm or ranch, contact me at 403-357-7659 or [email protected].

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