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Think of Grazing As a Tool

Think of Grazing As a Tool
It's more than a harvest; cattle can improve forage, change the landscape for better or for worse.

We grazing managers spend a lot of time discussing the benefits of planned grazing to animal performance, soil health and forage production but we do not pay enough attention to using grazing as a "tool."

In that vein, I suggest we need to consider the possibilities of using planned grazing to prevent problems before they occur and also to alleviate problems already existing.

One such often overlooked technique is the use of animals with lower nutritional needs such as dry cows to condition lax-grazed forage to improve its quality for the next pass.

When R.L. Dalrymple was at the Noble Foundation, attempting to improve individual calf gains on Bermuda grass, he brought in some older steers and dry cows to utilize the rather high residual he was leaving behind with the stocker cattle.

This worked fine. The "garbage eaters" as Dalrymple called them, took the older Bermudagrass off; when the new growth when it was high-quality stocker forage. This is what he expected but I think that he was a little surprised when at the end of the test the "garbage eaters" had gained an average of a pound a day. This is about the average for full-season gain with stocker cattle on continuously grazed Bermuda grass.

Two points I think need to be made concerning this trial.

First, the "garbage eaters" were adult or close to adult without the high nutritional needs that growth or lactation brings. In addition the forage they were grazing had been under a high-stock-density grazing program so it was fairly uniform as to physiological age.

Second, ruminant animals do best when their diet is close to the same nutritional quality (age in the case of forage) from day to day. Short graze periods give this uniformity and thus improve gains.

Every year large areas of warm-season native grass are burned off to improve forage quality for stocker cattle. If the summer grazing pattern was continuous, this forage contains a mixture of over-grazed plants and old ungrazed plants; forage quality will be poor and animal performance of even dry adult cattle will be poor.

If, however, the forage was grazed rotationally during the summer, it will be similar in age and able to supply all or most of the needs of adult dry cattle if it is rationed out in short graze periods. Grazing this forage off after frost at high stock density can give most of the benefits of a burn with none of the down sides and it will increase soil and forage health rather than reduce them.

Utilizing residual forage with animals that have lower nutritional demands may or may not fit your operation but there are other techniques that can be used which require nothing more than some advance planning.

Areas that normally accumulate deep snow can be grazed before snowfall while areas that normally stay snow-free are saved for during and after storms. Even where winters are not severe, saving an area with a windbreak and stockpiled forage can be a real stress reliever when a "blue norther" comes roaring over the horizon. It helps if the animals can either be put in shelter before the storm hits or else be on the north side of the hidey hole.

Areas with weak water should be scheduled for grazing when water is most plentiful and conversely wet areas should be scheduled for use when it gets dry.

The same reasoning holds for any event or condition that can be predicted; it is probably smart to not have the cattle and especially the sheep and goats mixed in with the deer and elk when hunting season opens.

It also is usually better to hold off grazing the locoweed pasture until there are other things green besides the loco.

If there are areas where the danger of fires is high, like along a railroad or highway, these areas should be grazed as soon as wildfire becomes a danger.

In humid areas, if dormant warm-season grass is grazed off at very high stock density (strip grazed) soon after frost, cool-season annuals can be established to create a green fire break. As I write this, much of Texas is burning; we can't cure drought and high winds but with forethought we can reduce its effects.

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