The best for animal husbandry and land stewardship is often a balanced decision. These past two years in north-central/northwest Missouri and a bit of southwest Iowa makes grazing management decisions tough to call. Two years of unusually dry and hot summers each followed by severe cold and long winters has left our pastures and pasture management in tatters. The following article printed in Midwest Marketer magazine is from Iowa State UniversityExtension beef specialists Erika Lundy and Denise Schwab offers some ideas for consideration. We live in toxic endophyte fescue country, so it is not a best practice to encourage its growth with the addition of any type of applied nitrogen. Legumes planted can mitigate the effects by replacing the poisonous grass, but must be managed with proper grazing.
About a week ago, despite our poor pasture growing situation due to dry and hot weather, i tried what others have done and that is UHDG or ultra high stock density grazing. There are some who have successfully managed shifting cows 5,7,9 times a day and obtaining up to 1 million pounds of livestock per acre! That can result in a phenomenal improvement in soil quality due to deep rooted plants and evenly distributed manure.
My experience was far different and after a couple of hours quickly realised my misgivings as to mob grazing’s effectiveness in our area.
Cool season grasses often don’t have deep roots, by and large, unless allowed to grow quite tall (and mature) which results in unpalatable grazing.
Mature grasses are unpalatable and very low ‘octane’ (nutrition)
Laying down cool season, fine stem grasses by trampling is virtually impossible.
Hot, humid weather causes some animals to suffer and they need shade – not all small paddocks can have shade.
I quickly realized that i was exhausting myself setting up polybraid and posts to shift the cattle. To the point that, instead of accomplishing other tasks whilst at the farm, i felt like napping instead!!
A problem perhaps unique to my situation is the distance from the stock. My farm is 35 minutes’ drive (via JD Gator) from our home. Though my solution was to shift cattle often on the days i could go up there, then give them a large break to last up to 3 days, but i found point 6 overwhelmed even that idea.
Putting dollars to that extra growth: In normal and decent growing conditions (not over 90F and normal rainfall), cool season grasses and legumes could potential produce 8-12 inches of growth in 36 days. An average pasture with little to no bare ground (spaces between plants) might yield 300 lbs to the inch per acre. So, if the entire farm received that additional 36 day rest, then 400 acres x 300 lbs per inch x 8 inches growth = 960,000 additional lbs produced. Reduce that by 20% to get a hay equivalency and price it at 5 cents per pound, then 768,000 lbs x .05 = $38,400 worth of hay that is not needed to purchase and maintain or grow the herd. OR, consider that as my wages for setting up and taking down posts and polybraid during the summer. Of course, nothing is perfect or normal, so even these conservative figures may fall way short in the face of a drought or hot temperatures. Nevertheless, there is gain to be considered IF the labor does not become cumbersome and cost more than the value of forage.
Well, this was all written on Monday the 21st of May – a week later – still no rain and temps continue well into the 90s with heat indices above 100 for several hours each day and little to no wind. It’s muggy and hot; cool season pastures are no longer growing, so the planned grazing is relaxed already since the cows need shade and i’ve set up a paddock with a big timber patch. Guess where most of the manure (nutrients) will end up? Yeah, not where planned. As usual, theories, plans, scenarios all go out the window in the face of nature. Like any other year, we just do the best we can with the conditions we are given.
Research results published November 30, 2017 by Sarah Kenyon, PhD, University of Missouri once again illustrate how grazing the non-native, invasive toxic-endophyte (E+) fescue plant causes health problems in cattle and other livestock, including horses. Other studies show the effects on the soil microbial populations and wildlife. E+ Fescue is pervasive, persistent, and poisonous.
Short grazing of E+ fescue in the last fall/early winter before a killing frost has been used by us and others to manage the spring growth of the plant by shortening the root system which slows spring growth, allowing more desirable grasses and legumes to get a foot hold. This is effective, but a relentless endeavor since it must be done every fall/winter to control the fescue and quite simply, there is no way to manage ALL the fescue at once everywhere on the farm.
I’m thankful for professors and agricultural leaders bucking the status quo and revealing this long-known information to a modern generation and offering solutions to not only mitigate the health issues associated with the toxin, but also ideas on eradicating it. Time will tell if changes will work – it’s expensive to renovate and manage pastures and fields – – and farming and ranching does not lend itself to wide margins of profits to plough back into improvements.
As you can imagine, i was shocked at the lack of grazing days provided by the annuals, but this was my first experience. When i turned them in on the annuals, the cows and calves grazed it all down in four days! In a few days, i was able to turn them back in for a couple more days grazing to boost that yield just a bit. However, at this point, the paddocks will take a very long rest. One thing i did not observe and record in previous years and that is cow condition. At least for this year, these cows were slick and shiny healthy coming off the annuals, but they were that way going in, too. So…..
So, in a nutshell, it cost me a total of $1842.12 to plant 18 acres of annuals for grazing. The purpose of annuals to help rejuvenate the soil microbe community and not necessarily for gain in grazing. Good thing, because it certainly failed in that department. However, as i had written before, the goal is to eradicate toxic fescue and build organic matter. It does look like that has happened at least in short term. It is very hard to measure long term benefits. However, from this point, i’m planning to tack the sail and switch to tilling then no-till a permanent ley (grassland). Whether or not that will work remains to be seen, but i’m keen to find a way to reduce then eliminate any tractor work. I hope to get that scheme underway and perhaps even completed this week. This new scheme, although i do plan to till before planting to permanent ley, will provide a side by side comparison of planting annuals first vs planting permanent pasture once and done. There will be a few spots, too, that won’t be tilled and seeds will be drilled straight into established pasture.
Additional thoughts and observations:
Grazing days – 4 days on 18 acres with 146 cows, 110 calves, and 6 bulls
Labor – setting up and taking down polybraid – two strips – 3 hours.
There is general concern that the annuals need to be stripped off for best utilisation because of the assumption that the cows will destroy too much of the forages. However, my experience is that there was very little waste overall and certainly not enough to justify 3 hours of labor in stripping off small sections. Having said that, i have to quantify that one strip allowed access to only 4 1/2 acres, then 5 acres, then about 8 1/2 acres. Perhaps larger sections would have shown more waste.
If conditions allowed less work setting up and taking down and one had more valuable annuals, then it may be better to take advantage of the benefits of strip grazing.
Post grazing observations:
where the soil was tilled and planted with annuals, the Kansas ragweed did not grow, but giant ragweed was there, though, far from as thick as an untilled/unplanted paddock.
Trampling of annuals was negligible – nearly all had been eaten with the exception of a few sunflower plants.
The pneumatic harrow needs a work over since there were a lot of skips in seed application. Thankfully, the yellow foxtail proliferated thickly in the tilled soil to keep the soil covered. Actually better than the annuals and the cows loved it.