Over the past several years, cattle producers have shifted their perspective about their No. 1 “job” on the farm. Sure, they have to make hay, doctor sick calves, fix fences and many other chores, but the first and most important job should be to grow grass. Some folks consider themselves grass farmers before cattle farmers. This mindset ensures that grass is the foundation of their operation, and everything else builds literally from the ground up.
There are two major types of grazing management: continuous grazing and rotational grazing. In continuous grazing, cows are turned out on a farm with all gates open for the herd to graze wherever they please for the entire season. If the pastures are not overstocked, this type of grazing typically leads to underutilization of forage. Pastures that are continuously grazed have overgrazed patches right next to overly mature grass. This mosaic of forage growth is caused by cattle continuously grazing the tender regrowth. In some cases, this type of management is only using about 30-40% of forage growth. In other words, 60-70% of forage growth is being wasted.
A lot of times, continuous grazing systems are in place because there are limited water sources on the farm. Watering sources and other infrastructure are the most limiting factors to implementing rotational grazing. There are programs that can help remedy this problem, and I will cover those options later in this article.
Rotational grazing has a broad definition, but essentially it is management that allows the producer to choose when and where a cow grazes. It keeps cattle from overgrazing an area and allows adequate rest periods before those plants are grazed again. This can be as simple as adding a cross fence to a farm and rotating the herd twice a year or as detailed as splitting up a farm into very small paddocks to rotate the herd twice a day. A farm that is rotationally grazed is also more versatile. It allows producers to use grazing as a functional tool to manage grass. This style of grazing management does take more time and work to implement, but the more work you put in, the more you get out. When performed correctly, the benefits of rotational grazing can be profound and allow for healthier cattle and potentially increased stocking rates.
At Missouri Grazing Schools around the state, the golden rule for rotational grazing is “take half, leave half.” When first hearing this, folks think that is a waste of grass. After attending the school, they realize they can actually produce more forage by adhering to this message. These regional grazing schools, planned by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and MU Extension, are designed to help educate and enlighten producers on management techniques that are not only good for conservation but also good for their wallet. Each agenda includes multiple days with sessions that discuss the benefits of implementing conservation grazing management practices.
Also, as mentioned earlier, an investment in infrastructure is needed to properly use rotational grazing. Producers typically need to add watering sources and build more cross fencing. This investment is not cheap, but by attending these schools, producers may be eligible for state cost-share funds that can help offset some of that cost.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there have been, and continue to be, several changes to this year’s Missouri Grazing Schools. Originally scheduled this past spring, the events have been on hold. At press time, several have been rescheduled this fall in October and November. For the most updated schedule, please visit Missouri Forage and Grassland Council on Facebook or on its website at mofgc.org. The schools will be limited to number of participants, so please contact the instructor for your local grazing school to check availability.
We all need to be good stewards of the land because the better we manage forages, the healthier our herds will be, the healthier our soils will be and the healthier our pocketbook will be. The grass is what feeds our herd, which, in turn, feeds our families.
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