Cyclically lower calf prices mean your management is more critical than ever. If you want to increase your payday next fall, the grazing plans you implement over the next few weeks could have a dramatic impact on the success of your business this year and in years to come. Grazing management has a large impact on your bottom line.
A popular seminar during Cattlemen’s College at this year’s Cattle Industry Convention focused on grazing practices—rangeland in the western U.S., and improved pasture in the East. Consistent university research shows feed and forage costs represent 50% to 70% of your annual cow costs, so placing more emphasis on grazing management that reduces costs will improve your profitability.
Practical experience, however, shows grazing management involves more than grass and cows. In North Carolina, Johnny Rogers grazes cattle, sheep and hogs on 550 acres of leased land. He markets grass-raised beef, lamb and pork to consumers in the Raleigh-Durham area, sells registered Red Angus bulls and works as a coordinator for North Carolina State University Extension’s Amazing Grazing program.
Rogers describes his business as down the middle of the road between conventional agriculture and niche, grass-fed marketing because of his non-traditional clients. While those clients like the grass-fed attributes of his meat products, Rogers says the success of his grazing program is due to some unseen “livestock”—worms and dung beetles.
“Dung beetles and earth worms are some of your soil predators that are helpful,” Rogers says.
Promoting good soil health is vital to maintaining forage quality and carrying capacity, so keeping the soil predators well-fed can be beneficial.
“Soil is the foundation of our farms and it will respond to management,” he says. At Rogers Cattle Company “adaptive grazing management” is used to optimizing forage consumption. Principles of the system include:
- A written grazing plan
- Identify and use set stocking rates and stocking density
- Set grazing periods
- Residual forage grazing
- Defined pasture rest periods
- Rotational grazing
- Observe and monitor forage
Rogers maximizes grazing opportunities by stockpiling forages for use during dormant months and planting cover crops. Rest periods for pastures are critical, he says, to help build soil structure and plant root growth with added moisture collection.
“Healthy soils will increase water infiltration and retention. Grazing management is the key to improved pasture soil health,” Rogers says.
Such strategies help producers lower overall costs by increasing grazing days. John Jennings, University of Arkansas Extension animal scientist, points to the “Arkansas 300 Days of Grazing” system that can work for producers of any size or environment.
“Think about your pastures and note whether you have forages that can be grazed in each season. This tells you if you have the potential for grazing 300 days,” Jennings says. “Growing a forage crop requires the same amount of management as growing a hay crop. If we manage forage and let it grow to a certain stage and harvest it with cows, we save the time and expense of putting up hay and then feeding the cows.”
While producers in North Carolina and Arkansas have seen abundant rainfall recently, the past several years has been a challenge for western grazers, especially in California.
Scientist Toby O’Geen examines soil under a grazed annual grassland on California’s North Coast.
Ken Tate, rangeland watershed specialist at the University of California-Davis, says much of grazing is adaptive management, especially in drought situations.
“If you are going to survive out on the rangeland you’ve got to be adaptive on a year-to-year basis and sometimes daily,” Tate says.
Multigenerational ranchers have learned to adapt to the environment. “They have to have flexibility and options,” he adds. “Those who have less flexibility—fewer types of forage, fewer places to go with cattle—tend to be the ones having a harder time because their ‘toolbox’ is smaller.”
Grazing methods can depend on infrastructure, such as access to water, fencing, herding capabilities and supplemental feed availability. Some producers who are more risk averse will lower stocking rates, while others will rotate pastures quicker.
The zone between the top two pins is where to look for evidence of soil compaction from grazing (the “cow-pan”). Grass roots should be penetrating this layer to access nutrients and moisture.