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5 Tips for Managing Forage, Grazing Systems

Pasture management and grazing systems vary greatly between regions of North America. No matter when the grazing season begins in your area, there are a few common components in preparing to measure and manage your forage and grazing systems.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” This advice once given to me by a Montana rancher rings true for so many aspects of managing farm or ranch businesses. With tools and technology at your fingertips, as close as on the phone in your pocket, there is not much excuse for avoiding recording and using the information available for the better management of your operations.

As you make plans and enter the grazing season each year, establishing a measurement system for pasture activity is a critical component of management.

1. Know pasture history.

No matter how few or plentiful, review historic records to have a better idea of what your forage production levels have been in the past. Take note of changing forage conditions due to weather, grazing pressure, period of utilization, and amount of time allowed for rest and stockpiling. If few records are available, identify events you may need to document moving forward, such as animal units, grazing days, irrigation needs, or harvest dates and quantities.

2. Determine capacity for animal units.

Know the carrying capacity for your forage supplies during a normal year. Does this match your current inventory? Make efforts to prevent overgrazing, not only to benefit animal performance, but also to maintain the health of your forage stands (particularly late in the season) and in the years ahead. Identify triggers such as changes in forage supplies or animal performance that call for evaluation of forage and grazing plans.

3. Map out your grazing season.

Have a plan for what your grazing season will look like. Plan for grazing rotations by estimating number of animal units, amount of forage to be harvested, and order of rotation. Utilize pastures to capture forage quality and quantity most efficiently, but also consider nutrient requirements of the animals. Start with a plan and consider if routines may be in place simply because “that's the way we've always done it” and consider if more appropriate methods or routines exist.

4. Select your tools.

Decide which tools you will use to record, collect, and organize measurements gathered throughout the season. Many mobile applications and software packages are available from local Extension programs or nationwide businesses. Something as simple as spreadsheets on Google Drive can help your team record notes in the field and allow records to automatically update when you return to the office.

5. Plan for flexibilty.

Weather and events beyond your control will change your plans. Cooler temperatures may prevail or rains may be few and far between during summer months. As long as you have a plan in place from the beginning, you will have a place to start when adjustments need to be made.

Do not forget to use the measurements you have been recording all season to help determine the best plan of action when the need to be flexible arises.

For more specific advice in preparing for or managing forage supplies and grazing systems in your area, always use university Extension agents in your state or local consulting professionals. These experts not only will be most familiar with factors contributing to forage and grazing management in your local environment, but also will be able to help develop grazing plans and provide monitoring tools.

Ryan Goodman has worked in many areas of beef cattle production and is an agriculture advocate based in Helena, Montana.

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