More efficient use of pasture forages can lengthen the grazing season, reducing both the cost of grazing and overwintering. "A managed grazing system can make more forage available because you reduce the animals' tendency to select for certain plants," says Justin Sexten, Extension beef nutritionist, University of Missouri.
He says that in a continuous grazing system, livestock use only 30% to 35% of the forage. But with intensive or strip grazing, it can be 70%.
"If you want to double the size of your ranch, just divide it up into smaller units," Sexten says.
He gives these eight tips for getting more productivity from pastures.
- Strip-graze or add cross-fencing
Limiting cattle's access to only small strips or paddocks lets you manage grazing pressure. The fencing design and stocking density should encourage uniform distribution while grazing. Position water sources so that cattle have to walk no farther than 1,000 feet to drink. Put water and shade at opposite ends of the pasture. Put mineral feeders in under-utilized pasture areas to encourage grazing there.
This will result in a higher quality of forage with increased protein and decreased fiber, and will improve the persistence of plants sensitive to close grazing, says Sexten. "You will get more vegetative pastures with less weed pressure and less mature plant material," he says.
- Monitor the length of the grazing period
A possible danger of intensively grazing a large number of cattle on a relatively small acreage is that forages can be quickly overgrazed, reducing plant vigor and depressing animal performance. "The difference between maximum success and a total disaster can be a fine line," says Sexten.
- Take half, leave half
The goal is to graze forages frequently enough to keep them in a vegetative state. Given sufficient moisture, plants regrow after grazing to try to complete their natural cycle of producing a seed head, signaling the end of plant growth. To accomplish this regrowth, plants require enough remaining leaves to gather sunlight and to store energy in the roots for winter.
"The take-half, leave-half concept is the simplest and most effective pasture-management tool producers can use," says Sexten. "If you constantly graze below four inches, plants can't compete with weeds."
A rule of thumb is to start grazing cool-season grasses at a height of eight inches and stop when they're down to three to four inches. Start grazing warm-season grasses at 12 inches and stop at a height of six to eight inches.
- Add legumes
"They are the cheapest source of nitrogen," says Sexten. "When they are 35% of the forage stand, they provide enough nitrogen for the rest of the pasture.
"An additional benefit of legumes is their growth pattern. Grasses have fibrous roots while legumes have taproots, allowing them to grow during the hotter, dryer summer season."
Sexten cautions against applying nitrogen fertilizer to grass-legume stands, particularly in the spring. The additional grass growth tends to outcompete the legumes.