Improving pasture management raises farm profits

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by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Managing pasture well can only improve a livestock operation’s sustainability. The Tri-State SARE Professional Development Project recently hosted “Improving Pasture Management for Sustainable Livestock Production,” a webinar featuring Daimon Meeh, New Hampshire state grazing specialist, member of the Granite State Graziers Board and member of the executive committee of the Northeast Pasture Consortium, and Jennifer Colby, part of the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Pasture Program and who has operated a diversified meat livestock farm since 2000.

Fencing considerations can improve pasture management. “There’s both what you want to put in your fence and what kind of fence is needed for different type of animal behavior,” Colby said. She listed several fence types, including external, subdivision, holding areas, laneways and gates. “We need to think about the different pieces of the fencing system. It’s essentially a large containment for the animals themselves. We need to think how we’ll subdivide it.”

In some systems, you may need to move animals on an occasional or a very regular basis. Laneways have exits and entries to different paddocks and open areas, for example, with different kinds of gates: physical gates, tubes or wires. Colby said laneways can be high tensile or low tensile, multiple-strand or single-strand.

Holding areas – where livestock are not kept regulalrly – should be extra sturdy because “they may be pushing against each other or you might be pushing them,” she said. Instead of one or two strands of smooth wire that would normally keep pigs in place, a hard fence is needed when weaning piglets, for example.

Colby also spoke about the land impacts of fence placement to topography. “If you have large square paddocks and animals enter from either end, they have the potential to spread out,” she said. “They will walk over each other’s footsteps in a long, narrow paddock compared with a square paddock. If they’re across the slope, it may help you address manure deposition. But it can create erosion as they walk across a slope. If it’s up and down, it can create erosion but ruminant animals are pretty much the only natural way to move nutrients uphill. There isn’t necessarily a right way, but understand that the orientation of fencing going different ways has an interface with how the animals move. Our management is going to impact that but we can use paddock orientation, shape and sizing to work towards our goals.”

Farmers must also consider their source of water. “We often think about fence first, but water is much harder to find and much harder to move,” Colby said. “We really should think about water before we think about fence.”

While the farm budget is important, she advised farmers to not feel constrained by money when considering fence design because of all the subsequent expenses of inadequate fencing. Seasonal and management flexibility can help farmers meet the needs of their livestock as they arise.

When thinking long-term, farmers should consider their goals for pasture management, their property, their farm and their business. “You may change farmer owners,” Colby said. “It may also be a change in generation. Maybe the next generation doesn’t want to do the same thing as the previous generation.”

She conceded that it can be hard to think long-term when constrained by money, but she said farmers should start by imagining what they want to see and then working toward those goals. “It’s not a bad thing to think in phases,” she said. “It’s how we create a cohesive whole in a grazing system. Most of us don’t have the money to buy a whole grazing system at once, and that’s not always a bad thing. We need to learn about the animals, learn how the water flows on the property. Growing out year by year can really set up well.”

Farmers should decide what they need from the basic grazing system to get started. “How are you going to manage it as the animals’ nutrition needs change?” Colby asked. “If you have lambs and moms out in the middle of the summer and the quality of the grass declines, how will you manage for that? Will you graze on bigger paddocks at the beginning of the season and then tighten them down towards the middle of the season? There’s a lot of different things you have to think about to set up a system that works in June, July and August.”

For farmers with existing pastures, it can be hard to think of the land as a blank slate; however, ignoring the infrastructure and seeking to meet the needs of the animals and farm will offer the best result.

“Starting with a blank piece of paper is a good way to do it,” she said. “Put on the major landforms, like hills and swamps, where the water sources are, and think about the sizing of your paddock needs. Draw it out and see what existing infrastructure is there.”

She used her farm as an example. For yearrs, she had carried water to her pigs. Although it was a halfway measure, it didn’t bother her until her farm grew. “Now I have too many pigs to carry water to,” she said. “I might have saved hundreds of hours putting in a water system earlier.”

Meeh agreed about the importance of water in the pasture. “Effective water systems are really key to intensifying your grazing rotations and making your rotations work in general,” he said. “It really is the limiting factor with your rotation system and what you can do with your fencing. Inadequate water can put more pressure on your fence.”

While most farmers cannot optimize their systems overnight, Meeh encouraged farmers to move toward that goal. “Most of the studies on water and consumption and a lot of the water studies on livestock have been done specifically on dairy cattle, but we can infer for other types of livestock,” he said. “If animals have poor quality water or limited access, that’ll reduce feed intake.”

Streams may not be ideal, as manure can become concentrated near them, affecting the cattle drinking from them and whoever uses the water downstream. Fixed point water sources deter animals from grazing uniformly, as they want to hang around their water source. He referenced a study in the Midwest that said that when beef cattle were 700 to 900 feet from a water source, utilization decreased significantly – they used only 130 acres of a 700-acre pasture. Meeh added that the farther animals must walk to access water, the less likely they will go there alone or by two. But shade, mineral and salt can change that, as well as topography. “If it’s up over the hill and they can’t see each other, that can cause them to want to go as a group rather than individually,” he said.

He advised farmers who use a water tank to find a size that makes it easy to move yet serves the need. Tank placement can also serve more than one paddock, which decreases the need to move it each time the animals move.

Farms with varied topography can contact their local Extension or NRCS when designing a water system. Farmers should also calculate demand for water. For example, a sheep needs two gallons daily compared with a milking dairy cow, which could need 30. In addition to lifestage and species, heat can also increase consumption.

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