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The Grazier's Gazette

How to manage livestock and pastures for what you want

Pasture grazing
I spent 20 years killing pasture weeds and livestock pests I didn't want and ended up with just as many of those "bad" things as I started with.

My frequently given advice is to manage for what you want rather than against what you don't want, and I have had enough questions lately to call for some explanation.

The concept is simple but it is contrary to much of currently accepted agricultural philosophy.

We have no trouble defining what we don't want: low yields, weeds, livestock-killing predators, crop-eating bugs, and yield-damaging plant diseases, to name a few.

For many years farmers were limited in the tools available to combat these maladies. There was no DDT, no eight-row cultivators, no cheap nitrogen fertilizer. Good operators came up with ways to handle problems with management.

Related: Working livestock with nature will build bigger profits

Then as now, bad effects of weeds, insect pests and disease can all be reduced by increasing biodiversity, breeding animals adapted to the prevailing conditions, and by practicing good hygiene.

On the flip side, anytime a monoculture of any plant is grown on the same area season after season, the insect and disease pests which prey on that plant increase in number. The same scenario occurs when any species of animal is constantly present. Species-specific internal and external parasites, as well as predators, will increase in the area because their food supply is always present.

Further, any practice that decreases soil health, such as tillage, acid-salt fertilizers, and abusive grazing, will cause an increase in plant and animal ills by decreasing the nutrition level in plants. The difference in mineral levels in plants grown in biologically active soil as opposed to the degraded soils common to our modern industrial farming mode can be as high as 40%. Under these conditions, both plants and animals are weakened and become more susceptible to attacks by ever-increasing numbers of parasites, predators and pathogens. Then a downward spiral in productivity occurs.

Kill pests you don't want?
Conventional wisdom says that the solution to restoring productivity is to kill the offending organisms, be they animals, weeds, insects or microbes, and thus protect the valued product. This view is so prevalent that farmers and ranchers spend huge amounts of money and a lot of time trying to kill a multitude of different pest organisms.

I spent the first 20 years or so of my working life intent on killing everything from coyotes to internal parasites to weeds to pecan weevils. At the end of 20 years, I had just as many if not more of each of these pests.

I recently wrote an article titled "The Diary of a Serial Killer (retired)" for the Acres USA magazine that provides more details of these failed efforts. This article and other information is available on my website.

The thing I finally learned is that I failed because in every instance I was focused on the pest instead of on why I had so many coyotes, weeds and internal parasites.

My problem was not weeds but rather the conditions in my pasture that gave weeds an advantage over the forage that I was trying to grow. In the case of weeds, the biggest problems were nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides. These two main tools that I was using to increase forage production were causing a long term reduction in growing conditions and thus favoring weeds, which are better adapted to poor growing conditions than are forages.

Related: These Things I Consider Critical Knowledge For Ranch Managers

A close second in terms of damage to forage was my abusive grazing. I was using pasture rotation but at that time I still believed what I had been taught in college that there were no advantages to using more than eight pasture paddocks. This number of subdivisions means grazing periods must be long in order to provide the forage with adequate recovery time.

Long grazing periods hurt productivity in several ways.

Long grazing periods mean favored grazing plants are hammered; grazed harder and more frequently than lower-quality plants.

Levels of animal nutrition are poorer since both the quantity and quality of forage is constantly changing like a roller coaster, from high to low, high to low, and never remaining constant long enough for the rumen microbes to adjust their populations to suit the type of forage they need to digest.

Livestock pests, from horn flies to stomach worms to face flies, explode since the animals are exposed for long periods of time to large quantities of their own manure, the very place where these pests incubate. Poisoning these pests will also kill the beneficial organisms, from carnivorous nematodes that eat worm eggs to dung beetles that desiccate or bury dung.

Related: Cover-crop farmers still missing the boat of livestock value

Killing pests always has consequences beyond those intended. Spraying pasture to kill weeds also kills the legumes and deep tap-rooted forbs that contribute greatly to good animal nutrition and healthy soil.

It is much better to practice good grazing management by putting a large number of animals on a small area for a short period of time, followed by a period of no grazing. This type grazing management is the most powerful tool I know of to improve grassland health and to increase livestock profitability.

All of the problems to which we devote so much time and money can be greatly reduced through management. It starts with healthy soil, which leads to healthy plants when properly grazed, which proceeds to healthy animals, then healthy bank accounts. Manage for health at each stage of production and watch problems of all kinds fade away.

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