While it is possible to put cattle in any fenced pasture area with a water source and say, “Good luck cattle. Good luck pasture. Try not to be too apparent in your needs,” that’s not smart pasture management. Effective grazing requires thought and effort, and the payoffs are worth it. Well-managed pastures perform favorably year after year, providing valuable forage for the herd. Poorly managed pastures are at risk of weed infestations, inadequate nutrition and forage degradation.
Pastures in MFA territory vary dramatically. Some are native grasslands with species such as switchgrass, bluestem, Indiangrass, gammagrass and others. Many pastures are cool-season mixtures of grass and legumes, such as fescue with clover. Others are summer annual monocultures such as sudangrass.
Each of these different types of pastures can have different issues. For example, there are concerns about bloat with alfalfa or prussic acid with sorghums. There are also many grazing systems to evaluate, such as rest-rotation, adaptive multi-paddock, intensive or strip grazing, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Pasture management must take into account the specific considerations for your forage type and operation goals, but there are several universal principles, as outlined by the Beef Cattle Research Council. Your choices in these considerations will directly influence forage yield and pasture productivity.
1. Don’t overstock.
2. Spread grazing pressure across the entire pasture.
3. Have adequate rest for each pasture.
4. Do not start grazing too early.
5. Maintain adequate litter cover and account for nutrient removal.
First, avoid the tendency to overstock the pasture. Ensure that the forage supply is adequate for the animal demand. To do this, you will need to consider the number of cattle present as well as the length of time they will be grazing. In addition, remember to account for trampling, wildlife and insect damage. Typical guidelines recommend a utilization rate of 25% to 50% for native pastures and 50% to 75% for tame pastures. These ranges allow the pasture to sustain itself from year to year.
Second, spread grazing pressure across the pasture. Cattle will selectively graze the tasty, productive areas and will likely avoid hilltops where forage quality may be lower. The goal is to spread grazing pressure across the whole pasture, which helps maintain forage health and lessens the risk of overgrazing the most productive areas.
You can get cattle to graze in a relatively uniform way by using a variety of methods. Popular options include strategically installing temporary or permanent fencing, placing mineral and salt, and locating stock watering stations to encourage cattle to graze the whole area.
Third, ensure enough rest to allow pasture plants to recover. Forage plants need adequate time to replenish their energy reserves. Without it, their productivity will decrease and pastures will be vulnerable to winterkill, weed invasion and soil erosion.
Fourth, do not graze too early. It is tempting to want to get cattle out on forage as soon as possible, but grazing before a pasture is ready can set it back dramatically. Within reason, the rough guide is that for every day you defer grazing in the spring, you’ll get back two days of grazing in the fall.
Finally, allow pastures to retain adequate litter cover. Litter includes forage residuals left over from the previous growing seasons. Litter is important for both native and tame pastures. This plant residue insulates the soil, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Litter reduces water loss due to evaporation and lessens soil erosion, and, as it decomposes, returns nutrients to the soil.
If you base pasture management on these five principles, you can help maintain forage productivity, ensure stand longevity, sustain a healthy plant community, conserve water and protect soils. Visit with your MFA livestock specialists for more information on effectively implementing these practices in your operation.
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