March 15, 2018 08:00 AM
The author is a freelance writer from Bozeman, Mont., and has her own communications business, Cowpunch Creative.

With spring soon upon us, March is the perfect time to revisit or begin a grazing plan and develop strategies to manage new forage growth. In my discussions with Idaho grazing consultant Jim Gerrish over the years, he has always emphasized a grazing plan as a vital necessity to managing the complexities of the soil-plant-animal relationship and the ups and downs of the forage growing season.

“Grass doesn’t grow at the same rate year-round, nor does livestock consumption stay the same,” Gerrish said. “We know forage is produced over a limited period of time, but we have to stretch that over 12 months.”

A grazing plan helps bring the forage supply and livestock’s demand into balance. Without this balance, inefficiencies can arise leading to greater farm expenses. The key to keeping the scales in check, Gerrish noted, is to use a variable stocking rate throughout the year. In other words, don’t graze the same number of animals in one place continuously. In addition, give pastures subsequent rest periods based on forage growth throughout the season.

While many pasture managers claim they already maintain a grazing plan, Gerrish said his observations have shown it’s more often an afterthought.

Where to begin?

Getting started with the grazing planning process starts with being organized, Gerrish said. Cultivate a habit of taking notes. This can be done via a pen and small pocket-sized notebook or through a note-taking app on a smartphone.

Next, graziers need to determine the carrying capacity of their operation. Gerrish said for pasture managers new to the practice, this will take some research. He recommended using Web Soil Survey (WSS), a comprehensive source for soil and plant information produced by the National Cooperative Soil Survey.

Additionally, consult and document past weather and rainfall records, such as those found on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Data website. Together, this information and the soil survey data will assist pasture managers in predicting which months forage growth and dormancy occur, as well as the timing of when peaks and declines are possible.

After the forage growth cycle has been determined, consider the class and number of animals on the farm on a month-to-month basis. Carrying capacity and, in turn, variable stocking rate will be determined by fitting livestock demand to expected forage production throughout the year.

Stay flexible

It’s important to remember, however, these numbers are based on data from what’s considered average or “normal” conditions. Producers need to incorporate a degree of flexibility into their stocking policy so that adjustments for unexpected forage growth changes can be made. This can be accomplished by grazing different classes or species of livestock at different times throughout the year.

“The goal is to have the ability to increase animal numbers to capture available forage when it’s on hand,” Gerrish said, “but then be able to easily liquidate or sell off a set number of animals when it’s not available.”

Grazing plans will differ across the country, Gerrish pointed out. In the West, a majority of a ranch’s grazing plan will also be a drought plan. Concurrently, in the eastern U.S., graziers can allot a smaller portion of forage for reserves and maintain a less flexible stock policy thanks to the region’s higher annual moisture levels and abundant market opportunities.

No matter the region, however, it’s still good policy to maintain both drought and destocking plans as part of a greater grazing plan, said Gerrish. With these measures in place, when dry conditions do arise, producers know immediately what to do and both pastures and the bottom line are in better shape in the long run because of it.

Looking ahead

As the grazing season progresses, Gerrish stresses pasture managers should take time to develop a pasture inventory. This practice provides an overview of how much forage is available in a pasture at a set point in time. To conduct a pasture inventory, individual pastures are periodically inspected to determine an estimate of available forage in each.

Gerrish suggested pasture inventories be conducted every two weeks on irrigated fields or high-moisture areas and monthly on drier rangeland areas during the growing season. This data can later be used to compare to the forage supply estimates calculated earlier in the year from historical records and soil surveys; it can then be used to make adjustments to the overall grazing plan.

No matter the size of an operation, producers will find benefit from implementing a grazing plan, Gerrish said. Pasture managers will have a better understanding of what their land is capable of producing and when the forage will be available.

“It also makes life a lot less complicated,” Gerrish said.

Find more grazing insight from Gerrish on his website:

This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 14.

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