The Forager
news & updates

March 2021
One of the common questions that comes up when planning for a grazing season is how
many times a pasture can safely be grazed each year. As you might expect, the answer is, “It depends.” More than anything else, it hinges on how much it rains, but it also is a function of latitude.

My basic guideline is to plan one grazing event for each 10 inches of annual precipitation for those living in drier environments. I consider a drier environment to be one receiving less than about 25 inches annually. To determine how frequently you should graze a particular pasture, take your total annual inches of precipitation and divide it by 10. For example, if you receive 18 inches of annual precipitation, you could graze each pasture 1.8 times.

What does that even mean? How do you graze a pasture 0.8 times?

What it means is every pasture will be grazed once, and 80% of your pastures will be grazed a second time. Often, that means the first grazing is in the active growing season and the second grazing is during the dormant season. Those pastures grazed only once each year
would be rotated on a five-year basis. Some pastures will get grazed twice during the growing season.

The more pastures you have to work with, the easier this plan is to accomplish. If you only have three or four pastures and your herd stays a couple months in each one, this strategy won’t make any sense at all. If you have 30 pastures, then it is very easy to implement.

More cycles with more rain
In wetter environments, considered to be those receiving more than 30 inches of precipitation, we change the planning criteria to one grazing event per 7 inches of precipitation. It takes less water to grow a ton of feed in a wetter environment versus a drier one, and less recovery time is needed for the pasture. That means more grazing cycles are possible over the course of the growing season. If you receive 35 inches of annual precipitation, you would plan for five grazing cycles.

What if you receive 56 inches of rainfall? Does that mean you should plan for eight grazing cycles?
No, it doesn’t. Believe it or not, there is a lot of research that shows there is really no pasture production benefit to additional rainfall beyond about 40 inches. With excess rainfall beyond that point, the amount of runoff typically accelerates. There are more days when the soil is saturated and deficient in oxygen, so plant growth rate slows down.

Three new leaves
Recovery time is the other side of the grazing frequency conversation. Between two successive grazing events, there must be enough time for the plant to recover from the previous grazing event. The severity of the prior grazing event and subsequent growing conditions dictate the appropriate length of the recovery period.

We can’t arbitrarily say that it must be 30 days or 100 days. We need to monitor the plant. For most cool-season grasses and some warm-season grasses, the indicator I like to use is the plant has recovered from grazing when a minimum of three new leaves have fully emerged.

I mentioned latitude was another key factor in grazing response. This is still a water-related consideration. An inch of water at Northern latitudes will grow more forage than an inch of water at a more Southern latitude. Some people have a hard time with this concept, but
it is really quite simple.

Lower temperatures in the North result in reduced evaporative water loss, so there is more soil water available for plant use. Northern soils tend to have higher organic matter than Southern soils, which typically results in a higher water holding capacity.

Longer day length at the peak of the growing season means more hours of photosynthesis every day. The net result of these factors is a faster plant growth rate. For latitudes north of 44 degrees, we use 7 inches as our grazing cycle factor for dry environments and 5 inches for wet environments.
Adjust for conditions
Remember, these are just guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Growing conditions in individual seasons must always be considered. Differences in soil type and soil health also affect water
relationships and growth rates. There were times in Missouri when I grazed eight or nine cycles in a year with 38 to 40 inches of annual precipitation. There have been times I have grazed a paddock under a center pivot in Idaho only twice with over 30 inches of applied water.

Guidelines like these can help you plan your grazing season, but they are not the plan.

The author is a rancher, author, speaker, and consultant with over 40 years of experience in grazing management research, outreach, and practice. He has lived and grazed livestock
in hot, humid Missouri and cold, dry Idaho.

Reprinted by permission from the February 2021 issue of Hay & Forage Grower.
Copyright 2021 by W. D. Hoard and Sons Company, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.
Getting Ready for Spring
By Bryan Weech

Taking advantage of planning opportunities now will set your forage/grazing operation up for success come spring. Here is a list of things you can do now that will help ensure a successful growing and grazing season.

1.      Scout your fields and pastures. Finding areas that need attention, and extra management can be difficult during the growing season when everything is green and growing (which tends to cover up trouble spots), and time is short. However, during the dormant season, bare spots and areas where plant spacing is wider than optimal can be easier to spot. Using this time to find trouble spots, assess causes, plan for corrective action, and start to think about managing strategies to both correct the problem and keep it from happening again, pays out measured returns.

2.      Take soil samples. Soil sampling is the best way to determine the general health of soil, and what nutrients might be lacking. Doing sampling now will help you get a jump on this ahead of the busy spring season. Note, soil biological lab results can be deceptive when samples are taken ahead of the growing season, since it is common for soil biology to slow down during the winter. Nonetheless, samples taken now will give a good indication of nutrient levels, which will help to determine spring fertilizing needs.

3.      Make initial grazing plans. Waiting until spring to decide when and where grazing will be initiated is a main ingredient of the recipe for disaster. Sometimes you can get lucky and avoid calamity, however more often than not waiting until spring when your time and attention is stretched thin tends to led to less strategic, less thought through decisions, with long lasting consequences. The good news is that now is a good time to start drafting your initial grazing plan, which should be refined, and adjusted as the grazing season gets closer. At a minimum, use this time to reevaluate what worked (and didn’t work) last grazing season, recall what pasture you turned into first and grazed last so you can defer grazing those pastures, and start thinking through possible pasture rotations, and potential improvements. Ask yourself questions like where were the trouble spots? Where would a cross fence be helpful? where would better livestock water development be helpful etc. Instead of coming up with a plan on the fly at the start of the grazing season, use this time of year to get organized, start thinking through a grazing plan, and generally get ready for a successful grazing season.

4.      Analyze infrastructure and equipment needs. As much as we hate to think about it, getting equipment fixed, and ready for spring now is much better then waiting until the day before they are needed. Fixing fence, or calibrating a seeder aren’t the most enjoyable things on most peoples to do list, however waiting until just before they are needed tends to lead to costly shortcuts and jobs that are patched together instead of done right. Also, now is a good time to get your temporary fencing material organized and ready to go. Even if the work isn’t done now, making a list of things that need your attention, and making plans to get it done is a valuable exercise, and having a plan in place minimizes stress, and helps to set priorities.

5.      Plan your seed needs early. Unfortunately, some people don’t think about their seed needs until just before planting, which means their trying to scrounge up seed at exactly the same time everyone else is, which is stressful for everyone, and leads to frustration. During the busy spring season waiting until just before planting usually means you won’t get the seed you want at the time you want it. When it’s time to plant, it’s time to plant, mother nature waits for no one! Most planting failures can be contributed to a few key factors, planting too late (for example after spring rains, or too close to peak summer heat) is one of the most critical factors leading to planting failure, (planting at the wrong depth, and planting in soil without the necessary fertility, are other common factors leading to failure). Plan your seed needs early, and talk to your seed supplier early so plans can be made early to assure you have the seed you need, when you need it.

Although success often includes a measure of luck, most often success comes from hard work, careful planning, and managing time effectively to allow for proactive and strategic improvement. Spending a little time now to plan for the upcoming critical spring time period, will set-up your operation for success during the entire growing/grazing season.
Why Beef Sustainability
Requires Grazing Management
By Bryan Weech

Sustainable beef has been defined as beef that is produced in such a way that is environmentally sound, financially viable, and socially responsible (see ). Nowhere in the beef value chain do these factors come together to affect sustainability as much as it does with grazing.
With few exceptions grazing is the singular common practice that every animal in the beef value chain has participated in, and given the impacts both positive and negative across the range of sustainability issues (see table), every beef value chain participant from the smallest producer to the largest retailer should be keenly aware of the need of the beef industry to be good stewards of the land.

Need for Planned Grazing
Adaptive Planned Grazing Management is the key to better environmental stewardship. Adaptive Planned Grazing is an approach to management that considers the needs of the forages including a plants response to grazing, and soil health that is influenced by the nutrient (carbon and nitrogen
primarily) and water cycles, and the importance to monitor responses and adapt/change manage as needed. Adaptive Planned Grazing dictates that a pasture is grazed when the forages in that pasture are prepared to endure the stress of grazing, and then the plants are allowed adequate rest after grazing to fully recover before being grazed again. Adaptive Planned Grazing monitors progress to ensure the grazing plan is having the intended result, and when things aren’t going as planned changes are made (adapted) to ensure success. The saying “you manage what you measure” applies nowhere better then to grazing management.

Grazing to Improve Sustainability
The single greatest thing the beef industry can do to increase sustainability is to improving grazing management. From the smallest farmer grazing a handful of cows to the largest ranch grazing thousands of head, the beef industry will be no more sustainable then the collective average health of the land that supports the beef industry. Land health is the singular thing that allows the beef industry to subsist. When beef value chain participants who support beef sustainability efforts realize this and focus resources on such things as supporting grazing schools, range schools, ranching practicums that teach grazing management and monitoring, grassland and grazing coalitions etc. the sustainability of the beef industry as a whole will increase tremendously, at a much quicker pace than otherwise possible.

The entire industry from major retailers who have publically announced their expectation that beef be sustainably produced to local cattlemen organizations who support the thousands of beef producers who are making key decisions everyday concerning how to manage the land, should have land stewardship (grazing) as a key focal area if they want to influence continuous improvement of beef sustainability.

Why a Land Focus?
The beef industry is in separately connected to the land. This is the industries greatest strength, and its greatest point of vulnerability. Anyone following the multitude of lawsuits concerning the grazing of public lands understands the risk to the industry. Given the negative impacts that improper grazing can produce, it is critical that good grazing management is utilized. However, what people using litigation in an attempt to ban grazing don’t realize is that in a large portion of the U.S. (certainly in the regions where large herds of bison and elk once grazed) grazing is an essential component of healthy grasslands.

Importantly, beef can be produced on land that isn’t suited for other food production, while using self-renewing resources (grass) that requires few inputs except sunlight, water, nutrients (already in the environment), and adequate rest after grazing. This is a miraculous process, which is a self-sustaining system when managed properly. However, it is also a delicate process that if managed improperly has detrimental results causing a subsequent reduction in sustainability. There is opportunity for continuous improvement in the area of land stewardship, and as stakeholders work together to support the research, and information dissemination that allows continuous improvement in grazing management, there will be great stories to share concerning how the beef industry is contributing to a healthy plant, healthy food secure people, and financially healthy families and communities.