Several conversations with great graziers in recent weeks reminded me of something I don't always make clear when I write about managed grazing.
Forage needs adequate recovery time after grazing. It does not need "rest."
This is not just a game of semantics. There are some very real differences you absolutely must understand if you want to improve the productivity your grasslands.
Rest simply implies a time without cattle there. It has little or nothing to do with health. I've heard R.P. Cooke describe rest this way:
"When you've been working hard all day and you're exhausted, is rest what you need before you are fully recovered and can put in another full day of hard work? If so, how much?
"Will 10 minutes of rest be enough? No?
"How about 30 minutes? Still no?
"What about three hours? Probably the answer for most of us would still be no."
Or what about if your arm has been bitten off. Is rest what you need to fix that? If you could grow a new arm, how much rest would you need before you were recovered?
The solution, my friends, is to talk about and specifically to use the word "recovery."
If you've been working hard all week and you're able to take a couple days off and actually spend time resting and healing tired muscles or spent brain energy, then the question is whether you're recovered, meaning essentially healed, and ready to work again at full capacity.
That's what you want from your pastures. For grazed plants, which have had various amounts of their solar panels torn away and root growth abandoned, the question is the same: When will they be fully healed and ready to work again?
In fact, this question of what constitutes adequate recovery for grazed plants is at the heart of the debate right now among the most accomplished graziers.
Truth is, it's a debate that's been raging since before French scientist/farmer Andre Voisin noticed in the early 1900s that cattle, when given free reign of a pasture, tended to return and rebite the same plant within about three days.
Allan Savory and Stan Parsons began to teach time-controlled grazing in this country in the 1980s and we have moved slowly forward from there.
Until the past five or 10 years most graziers were stuck in the rut of the New Zealand grazing management model wherein they tried to manage for "vegetative" forage. If you're unfamiliar with those concepts, here's a short explanation:
* Stage 1 was considered the early growth stage when plants were weak, certainly not recovered and would have had too much protein and not enough energy.
* Stage 2 was considered the vegetative stage where the plants were fully photosynthesizing again and have a nice mixture of protein to energy for livestock. Near the end of Stage 2 was considered the perfect balance of optimum production and yield and would be about the time the best hay would be cut.
* Stage 3 was considered the reproductive stage of plant growth, wherein plants are setting seedheads and are developing too much indigestible lignin. Late in Stage 3, such forages are even considered to be in volumetric decline.
This management philosophy also came to be known as management-intensive grazing, or MIG grazing.
All this was generally true except for a few major caveats.
First, this assumes you're managing monocultures or very simple polycultures. A monoculture sward, or pasture, of fescue or brome or bermudagrass will indeed be in about the same state of growth at the same time if harvested relatively evenly, whether by cattle or machine.
In fact, such a plan of relatively frequent "rotation" actually forces such a system of medium-successional plants because it will not allow plants which need bigger, deeper root systems and longer recovery times to flourish.
An example is that native tallgrasses cannot thrive in a 30- or even a 60-day rotation common in MIG-type grazing plans. These tallgrasses are normally warm-season forages. However, I've seen evidence the best native cool-season plants do better with longer recovery time, as well.
These best plants, which have the highest quality for the longest period and have the deepest root systems and are the most drought-resistant and the most beneficial to soil life, simply need more time to be fully recovered.
Further, many other high-quality native forbs which can add to the quality of the soil and the nutrition of grazing animals also need much more time to recover.
Herein we are getting at the concept of biodiversity, which is also a builder of soils and of forage quality and of quantity.
Remember too, that when we talk of longer times to achieve full recovery of forages, we're going to build so much material that we'll only ask the animals to graze the tops of the plants. The quality therein, particularly in a sward with great plant diversity, will be adequate in most temperate environments. It may possibly be close to the quality of that Phase 2 sward and it will certainly be much more diverse and much deeper-rooted and support much cooler soil.
These are some of the lessons taught by Doug Peterson, Missouri NRCS soil health specialist and high-density grazier. Peterson is one of the growing number of forage-and-cattle managers who advocate high-stock density grazing and long recovery periods.
Some people call this grazing tall.
I like R.P. Cooke's term: "full recovery." It gets to the heart of the thing most misunderstood by grazing managers. That is adequate recovery time.
If you want to build stronger plants, more drought resistance, higher stocking rates, better soil biology and therefore better nutrient cycling, longer grazing seasons, higher soil organic matter and soil humus, then you need to use full recovery in your grazing plans.
Watch for the May edition of Beef Producer magazine. In that we'll discuss with Beef Producer blogger and management consultant Jim Elizondo how to combine full recovery and MIG-type grazing in high-growth, hot environments where forage grows so quickly it's hard to capture quality at any time of year.