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Beefs and Beliefs

Grazing Problems Are The Manager's Fault

Drought aggravates the normal problems with grazing management.

Grazing topics have been on my mind lately.

For me, of course, that's typical but it's also because I've been seeing the effects of drought on the land as I travel around.

On one of my sometimes-regular drives there's a native meadow that appears only to get hayed, although I'm not certain it ever was this year. It looks pretty good after we've had a little rain. The forages have greened up and I can see a lot of bluestems and a few forbs mixed throughout.

Just across the road, and in fact up and down the highway on either side, most of the pastures have very short and weak-looking grass and a covering of mostly broomweed. Although it's green right now and covered in yellow flowers, I fail to see the beauty in it.

To me, a few broomweed plants can be pretty. A pasture full of them isn't.

That's because when I see pastures in such bad condition that nature can only manage to cover them with broomweed I know how much damage has been done to the better-quality grasses; how much their root systems have been compromised, how the bacteria and fungi that live around their roots are dramatically reduced in the soil and how the organic matter in the soil will decrease.

In turn, I know how much all these things will hurt the solar cycle, meaning the ability of the land to capture sunlight and turn it into forage and nutrients. I also know how they have damaged the water cycle by reducing organic matter, which is the soil's primary method of storing water and nutrients. Walt Davis does a masterful job of writing about these things in his upcoming November column in Beef Producer.

Ultimately, these things are the fault of the land manager. All the great graziers I know understand this and will tell you when things go badly: "That was my fault."

At one time I would have said these degraded pastures are "overgrazed," a term which is often used incorrectly and much misunderstood.

Typically when people say a place is overgrazed, they are really saying it was overstocked. They mean the grazing manager put too many animals on the land

In truth, the word overgrazing really describes the effects of bad management on the plants themselves. In fact, overgrazing is best thought of on an individual-plant basis. I first learned this when I began interviewing Holistic Management practitioners and studying the work of Allan Savory.

Under this better definition, overgrazing means a plant is grazed off and then grazed off again before it has fully recovered. After grazing, especially a grazing that takes off more than about 50% of the leaves from a mature plant, grass regrows by drawing heavily on the carbohydrates stored in its crowns. Root growth is stopped or sometimes roots are abandoned during this recovery process. The plant needs to get enough leaves back up to collect sunlight and restart its photosynthetic factory and recharge those carbohydrates and fully re-enter the growth process again.

If a manager allows it to be bitten off again before those things have happened, the plant is severely weakened and becomes smaller in root mass and productive capacity. If this happens repeatedly it really opens the way for plants of lesser value to come in, things like broomweed, ragweed and threeawn.

So essentially, overgrazing is a function of time and exposure.

There are two or three ways in which land managers typically overgraze their forage plants with livestock.

One is continuous grazing. In that scenario some plants are constantly overgrazed and never get any recovery times. For reasons known only to the livestock and the plants, some are ignored and not grazed at all, leading to undergrazing and a plant that often gets sick and dies from the center outward.

In a drought, most folks don't destock soon enough or deeply enough and this is compounded in continuous grazing situations because hope-blindness sets in; the manager hopes it will rain and save him and hopes he has more grass than he really does. Living on hope, he simply doesn't see how bad things are until they are worse than bad.

As part of this process the land is overstocked and the rebiting of plants spreads to nearly every plant in the pasture.

Another cause of overgrazing is overstocking and/or over-rotating stock. Typically those behaviors are related, but the result upon the forage is that livestock are put back into a pasture or paddock before the forage is recovered and the plants get rebitten and weakened.

Put simply, overstocking is a matter of putting too much consumption demand on land that can't support it. Land can grow a certain amount of forage at various rainfall levels. Cattle consume a relatively set amount of forage every day, depending on body weight and if it is available to them.

Overstocking was one of the mistakes people made back in the early 1980s when Allan Savory and Stan Parsons apparently told them they would be able to double their stocking rates by improving their land management. It was true but it doesn't happen the day you build the fences and change management. It takes time.

So folks often would put too many animals on the land. Then they typically grazed severely, which means they grazed off too much forage and so the plants needed more time to recover. But there wasn't enough forage improvement yet to support the extra animals and before the plants in any given paddock had time to recover, the manager opened the gate and back came the grazing animals to bite off the fresh growth.

That is true overgrazing.

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