Getting started in grass farming

by Allan Nation

Management-intensive grazing, or MiG, as we call it, is a very important part of a quality pasture program. MiG is what puts the steering wheel, clutch and brake on your self-harvesting animal combine. The following is a brief outline of where to start with MiG.

Breeding Season Must be in Sync with the Pasture

There is very little management-intensive grazing (or any other pasture management program) can do to dramatically improve your bottom line if you are calving, lambing or kidding out of sync with the growth of the grass in your area. Timing your animals breeding to the grass is the single most important management input in grassland farming, yet most new graziers resist making this change often making it the last management "tool" implemented rather than the first.

This means a spring calving program--when the new spring grass growth is tall enough to almost cover your foot. In most areas this will be from March to early June.

There are many ways of getting your animal's breeding in sync with the pasture. Buying and selling animals is the fastest and the one I recommend.

Clean Water is Critical

If you are currently watering your stock out of a pond or dirt tank the cattle can get into, put your money into a fresh water system before tackling management-intensive grazing. If you won't drink it, you shouldn't force your stock to drink it. Dirty stock water is your primary source of disease and parasitism.

Water in every paddock can cut feed consumption. Cows that have to walk to the barn for water seldom walk back to graze in hot weather. Drinking water and urinating is a major way dairy cattle stay cool.

Water tanks and troughs should be cleaned frequently as the algae that grows in it is toxic and produces scours in cattle. With today's low-cost plastic-pipe water-systems, there is no reason not to have fresh water available at all time.

Subdivide by Landscape First

Your first pasture subdivisions should be to group like areas. For example, fence north facing slopes from south facing ones, swampy areas from dry, etc. This initial subdivision will help tremendously in avoiding problem areas and maximizing the off-take of your most productive land. In most cases this will give you the eight to ten paddocks to prevent overgrazing. Try to keep permanently subdivided paddocks large and use temporary fence on a seasonal basis to ration out pasture during times of shortages.

Plan for Mud

In the early subdivision provision should be made for an area where the animals can be placed and fed during periods of high rainfall. This is particularly critical with annuals and alfalfa to avoid plant damage but severe, continuous pugging will greatly diminish the productivity of all pastures. A sacrifice paddock can be a pasture with a tight mature sod or a small yard or trap with three or four feet of sawdust or wood chips laid over it.

So, before we start management-intensive grazing we should have:

1. Animals in sync with grass

2. Availability of fresh water

3. Like management areas grouped

4. Provision made for avoiding mud

MiG Can Give You a Competitive Edge

Management-intensive grazing can increase your per acre production between 20 and 40 percent. This increase will come either as increased animal production and/or increased hay production if the stocking rate is not increased. An increased stocking rate is the most painless way to lower fixed costs. After the initial subdivision expense this increase is almost a pure reward for management and is why management-intensive grazing is becoming the skill that is separating the professional grazier from all the rest.

While per acre increase in stocking rate and gain are usually listed as the primary benefit of management-intensive grazing, Keith Milligan, senior pasture extension officer in New Zealand, gave me a longer list.

1. A better return on total investment through a higher stocking rate, increased per head production, and lower death losses from better animal observation due to animal bunching.

2. A lower labor input due to more even year-long work load and no high peak periods due to massive haying or feeding.

3. A general conservation of the environment due to less over-grazing, better utilization of rainfall and fertilizer due to faster pasture cycling, and the ability to preserve important preferred species of grass.

4. A much increased sense of peace of mind on the part of the grazier. You can see your feed bank out ahead of you and by measuring the grass' regrowth can make buying and selling decisions far in advance of the actual "crunch."

New Zealand consultant, Keith Milligan said that while management-intensive grazing could raise per acre production by 20 to 40 percent, management-intensive grazing in conjunction with a flexible stock policy could increase production by 60 to 80 percent!

Match Stocking Rate to Grass Growth

A flexible stock policy changes the stocking rate to match the seasonal variations in grass growth. This flexibility can be accomplished by buying and selling animals but this is extremely risky because the gain per head is likely to be too small to absorb price rollbacks.

The alternative to a variable stocking rate is a haying or silage program that takes grass from surplus periods such as the late spring to deficit periods such as the winter. This is by far the most common program.

You should plan to take the increase in forage that will result from management-intensive grazing off as hay or silage in your early learning years. Once a comfortable hay insurance reserve of stored forage has been built, you can start edging up your overall stocking rate. I should warn you that a common mistake novice graziers make is interpolating last year's rainfall and growth rates into the next year. Every year is different. MiG is a real time system. You must manage for what is happening now and that requires frequent pasture walking.

Keep in mind, 250 paddock subdivisions are not 50 times better than five subdivisions in humid environments that produce rapid grass growth. In humid environments, including irrigated pastures, a very large number of permanent paddock subdivisions may allow the fast-growing grass to become mature and stemmy before the grazier can get to them. The sole intent of a grass plant is to make a seedhead and the primary task of the grazier was to prevent it from doing so. This is very difficult and frequently beats even the most experienced graziers.

Consequently, I do not recommend that anyone just getting into management-intensive grazing start in the spring season with cool-season grasses or during the mid-summer season with subtropical grasses. Concentrate your efforts on the slow growing months, or even better, on winter when the results of your efforts can be dramatic and the chances of your accidentally hurting animal performance are low since your stock will be dry.

The practice of stockpiling fall grown cool-season grass and then tightly rationing it out over the winter as a replacement for, or a protein supplement to, hay has the highest profit return and should be the starting point for all management- intensive grazing programs. Since wintering stock is 70 percent of the direct cash cost of livestock production, small gains in productivity here can have very dramatic results on your bottom line.

The average growing season for the 50 most frequently used grasses in the United States is 240 days or some three months longer than the average row or vegetable crop. In most of the United States it is possible to extend the green-grass grazing period to 300 days by stockpiling autumn growth.

In the lower half of the United States by using cold- tolerant cereal rye in combination with a perennial long-season grass, a green and GROWING forage crop can be had in excess of 300 days a year. Cereal rye will continue leaf growth at a leaf temperature of 38 degrees F (8 C) and a soil temperature only slightly above freezing.

Winter in the United States averages 160 days in length. However, the actual time of very cold weather, snow and ice is a small fraction of this time. In the northern two-thirds of the United States, the average annual period of snow cover is only 24 days. In the northern one-third, it is only 40 days a winter. Snow is no excuse for not winter grazing!

Each year it is important to vary the paddocks grazed in the fall. Autumn-grazing deferment allows the grasses to build healthy root reserves for robust spring growth. The paddocks you graze during the fall will always be your slowest-growing and poorest-doing paddocks next spring.

Teeter-totter Gains

One major disappointment of many new management-intensive graziers is a lowered per head production. You must keep in mind that high production per animal and high production per acre are opposite ends of a teeter-totter. If one goes up the other must go down.

For example, the potential for a high average daily gain is determined by how tall the grass is when you turn the cattle on a paddock. The actual average daily gain is set by how much grass is left when the cattle leave the paddock. Grazing the grass right into the ground so as to leave a sharp graze line between paddocks before shifting produces a low average daily gain and should only be done with dry stock.

By only allowing the cattle to top graze the best of the grass sward, average daily gains equal to those of a full feed of grain can be achieved. Young, tender green grass leaves are the ultimate concentrate for ruminant animals.

The only way to break the per head vs. per acre teeter- tooter is to use high production animals as first grazers and lower production animals as last grazers. By understanding and knowing how to manipulate grass with the cattle, a grazier can control both his animal's gain performance and the per acre production to a remarkable extent. All of this will come as your "grass eye" develops. Training your "grass eye" takes time and requires practice, observation and contemplation. It will come. However, I do not recommend you start learning management- intensive grazing with high production animals such as lactating dairy cows, short season stocker cattle or weaned lambs. Learn with replacement heifers, beef cows and calves, or dry dairy stock that have lower production goals.

Also, it has been my experience that perennial grass pastures need about three years of "conditioning" by way of management-intensive grazing before they are ready to really turn a flip for you with the high production animals and classes anyway. So give yourself the time to learn. A early-weaning, beef brood cow herd is an excellent initial rough pasture conditioner or "bush-basher" as they say in New Zealand. However, a higher value producing enterprise should be your ultimate goal.

In most cases it will take 10 to 12 years of grazing experience for you to become really adept at MiG. If you aren't willing to make this commitment, you may want to look for another line of work.

In summary, if you're just starting management-intensive grazing, I recommend:

1. Concentrate on the slow or no growth months.

2. Do not increase current stocking rates in your learning stage--prepare to make hay or silage instead.

3. Use low production animals.

4. Remember Rome wasn't built in a day.

As Burt Smith said, "The best way to learn to swim is to get in the water and start splashing around. Nobody ever learned to swim by just reading a book about it."

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by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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