Refining grazing improves livestock health

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by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

In agriculture, “sustainability” can refer to not only environmental aspects of the business but also to the ability to continue to do business. Tri-State SARE Professional Development Project presented “Improving Pasture Management for Sustainable Livestock Production” as a webinar, in cooperation with UMass Extension, University of Rhode Island College of the Environment and Life Sciences and UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. Daimon Meeh, New Hampshire state grazing specialist, presented.

Susan Parry, Pennsylvania state grassland conservation for USDA-NRCS, also presented, along with Jennifer Colby, part of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Pasture Program.

Meeh advised farmers to develop a plan for grazing, including contingency plans. He said a grazing plan is “figuring out if you are in a situation that is reasonable for your land, the right number of animals for your land and the right feed for your animals.”

“While grazing plans can be helpful when farming goes well, you need to be ready for when things don’t go as planned,” Meeh said. “That can be really crucial to the success of your operation long-term. That’s where these contingency plans come into play.”

Meeh said it’s important to pay attention while things go well. “You want to think about certain management pinch points you may run into over the course of a grazing season or over the winter,” Meeh said. “If you have animals year-round, winter is a significant part of your year and management.”

Weather is obviously a huge component of grazing plans. A drought-minded plan can be used for times that are a little bit dry or when forage regrowth is not as robust as normal, like later in the summer.

Setting goals is not enough. Meeh stressed the importance of evaluating whether or not grazing goals are being met as much as practical. “The real important point is identifying a fairly clear trigger of when you put those contingency plans into action,” he said.

He called farming a “trial of constant optimism. If you’re too optimistic and you avoid going into your contingency plans, you may decide to go into them too late.” That can cause setbacks in gains and decreased animal vigor and health.

Farmers need to identify and establish “trigger points” that signal it’s time to move into contingency plan mode. “Those trigger points can be a little big and hard to define,” Meeh said. “A lot of contingency plans won’t get it right the first time. It has to be a living document. Every year, every major event, you might want to think back ‘How’d that go? What do I need to do differently?’ and be ready to change things.”

Oftentimes, farmers run out of forage for their livestock for many different reasons.

“It could be just the summer slump,” Meeh said. “All that careful calculation has to go out the window because now there isn’t adequate regrowth.” And contingency plans must be used without that adequate regrowth.

Many farmers run into trouble with density and grazing. “Herd size is a tricky one,” Meeh said. “They don’t want to get rid of their animals.” It also seems illogical to build a herd and/or improve animal genetics to sell animals for the sake of lower grazing density in the paddocks. One answer could be using a “sacrifice paddock” to feed hay or a wetland area, if that’s the only place growing vegetation (provided there are no toxic plants growing there). Using pasture-saving strategies earlier, like moving animals sooner, can help prevent stunting growth too.

While having too much land seems to be an advantage rather than a problem, it can become difficult if the grass grows too much. Planning for the spring flush is important for producers. Meeh said farmers need to determine if they’ll take it for hay, clip it or move animals through more frequently.

Colby said farmers should think about people-related contingencies for farm operations. “Think about different ways to manage risk,” she said. “One of the riskiest things is people.” With your contingency plan, think of the six Ds: death, disability, divorce, disagreements, depression and drugs, she said, citing Dave Pratt’s book “Ranching for Profit.”

Parry focused on the implementation and evaluation of the grazing plan. “Look at what you have on your operation,” she said. “Walk your pasture. The more systematic it can be, the more prepared you can feel.”

Farmers cannot do everything at once, especially when they must put their resources into those changes. “It makes sense in any operation to decrease risk by making sure you’re operating efficiently,” Parry said. “Include a list of costs and inputs compared with your business plan. We want to take a whole farm system approach.”

The steps of planning are identify, inventory, assessment, alternatives, decisions, implement and evaluate. “Do you want to be adaptive or reactive?” she asked. “A plan is very important when talking about your life’s goals and life’s work.”

A farm plan could include a field map. “You may have worked with NRCS to get a field map; you may just have a piece of paper,” Parry said. “It doesn’t matter as long as you make it the best it can be.”

Farmers may also want to measure the diverity of their pasture, dry weight or make simple observations on the appearance of a paddock. NRCS’s National Protocol and Required Assessment can offer a more precise pasture conditioning score. Parry likes NRCS’s Guide to Pasture Condition Scoring for additional insights, which includes 10 indicators of pasture health. A required assessment tool for beginning pasture planning, the guide can help with building a healthy pasture. The goal is a 70/30 grass-to-legume ratio, among other measures.

“The information can really be something that can help you hone your management,” Meeh said of pasture evaluations.

Writing down a plan with due dates “helps you think through the details of what you’re putting down and also it holds you to it a little bit more than keeping it all in your head,” he said. It also helps should any unforeseen events occur and others need to manage the grazing plan.

“Troy Bishopp’s grazing chart can be overwhelming to some people, but very helpful,” Meeh said. “He advocates for linger grazing, where you move the animals but you linger around and watch them. That can provide information as to how your animals are acting.” And observation can help farmers better evaluate how to adjust their grazing plans to improve pasture in the long run.

Colby concluded, “You don’t need a complete grazing plan; you just need to start. That’s the hardest thing. Don’t feel like you have to have it all figured out … Add another thing every year, another thing to watch and another piece of your system. Pick one or two things to refine; don’t think you can do it all.”

Transitioning from dairy to beef or having no animals in winter is fine if that’s what it takes to make farm sustainability work.

“It’s okay to do those things,” Colby said. “We can also stop doing something in a particular way and do things that are crazy and out-of-the-box. Create systems as you go forth. In the simplest way, track your changes.” That could mean smartphone photos, measuring sticks or scribbling in a notepad. “When you look back in a year, you can see the pictures and know that you were doing a good job when you had that drought. We will see what the results are, good or bad, about how we managed last year. Be prepared for excellent things – better than you think.”

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