As the seasons change from hot to cold or wet to dry, we must also change our grazing management practices.
With each day that passes, our livestock are managing their forage supply that we make available to them.
If given the opportunity to select what they want from a large smorgasbord of available forages, they will select and graze the best that they have available to them. If we as managers do not intervene, they are likely to graze the very best out of the stand and be left with lower and lower quality feed as the days roll on.
Our job as the manager is to:
1. anticipate the livestock needs for weeks and months in advance;
2. evaluate the current available feed;
3. calculate the expected growth of the pasture and hay fields;
4. determine how much and what quality stored feed we have on hand or plan to purchase;
5. make daily decisions on how to allocate those resources; and
6. evaluate the success of our decisions or figure out how to correct the problems.
That all sounds easy enough to accomplish, doesn’t it?
Now let’s factor in a few unknowns:
lack of rain
cold, wet/windy weather
late spring frost
early fall frost
cold/wet April, May June
high fertilizer/fuel prices
And then there’s the drunk driver who takes out 50-foot section of fence along the state road at 1 a.m. and keeps going while your livestock are “going” all over the neighborhood, etc.
This game of farming gets better all of the time.
On a more serious note, we need to evaluate which of these factors we have control over and which ones we really can’t do much about. We can have an impact on the amount — in both quantity and quality — of feed we have available for our livestock today and throughout the next coming season.
At a recent workshop, we spent a lot of time talking about measuring forages and allocating it to the livestock based on its feed value.
In general, most of us take our pastures for granted and do not really pay much attention to them until we have a weather situation that hits the extremes. If it gets really, really wet and everything turns to soup, we think about getting to more solid ground, or a heavy use pad, or maybe a barn. If it gets really, really dry, we realize that there is not much out there for the animals to eat and start looking for somewhere green to move them, or start hauling feed to them.
I hope that most everyone reading this article is making decisions about rotating your livestock before these extremes are reached.
Whether we plan to or not, we are really making a decision every day. Sometimes the decision is to move the livestock and sometimes the decision is to leave them where they have been. Not actively making a decision is really a decision to not take action.
As we approach fall and winter, I hope that your decision is to observe your existing fields, estimate how much forage you currently have, and make a choice as to whether you need to do something to increase your production before winter, or not.
If you are like most operations, you could probably use more fall pasture to extend your grazing season and reduce your feed costs. Adding 50 units of nitrogen per acre to a grass pasture or hay field has the potential to increase the production on that field by a ton to a ton and a half of additional forage.
Some folks are thinking that they cannot afford the nitrogen due to the high fertilizer prices. If you price the cost of purchased feeds, whether it is hay, or corn, or other supplements, you will most likely find that the price of nitrogen is still a good buy for the potential forage it can produce.
The nitrogen should be applied prior to an anticipated rain, preferably about a half inch of rain. The nitrogen should be applied as soon as possible to allow the grass to grow and accumulate while we still have warm weather.
The additional benefit from the nitrogen fertilizer is an increase in the quality of the grass that is stockpiled this way. Grazing the stockpiled forages in the fall and winter saves in fuel costs as the animals can harvest the forages cheaper and more efficiently than we can. It also allows the animals to spread the manure on the fields where the forage is grown, rather than around a bale ring for us to collect and redistribute.
As harvest season approaches, this is also a good time to consider grazing crop residue. Many residues can provide excellent feed value and extend the grazing season by several days with a minimum amount of investment in temporary fence for the field.
When residues are available, they should often be grazed as soon after harvest as possible to get the maximum feed value as their quality can deteriorate quickly in cold, wet weather.
From a conservation and grazing standpoint, now is the time to decide where you want your livestock to be during the coming months.
— Which fields will hold up during wet weather?
— Which fields will offer shelter during cold, windy weather?
— Where can the livestock get water when the temperatures drop below freezing?
— Can we get enough forage stockpiled to carry the livestock through early to mid winter, or can we get there by strategically placing some large round bales of hay at the edge of several paddocks now to be utilized when the fields are grazed later?
Along with these questions you need to consider where the livestock will be during extended wet, muddy conditions.
Do you have a high and dry spot that will hold up for an extended period of time or do you have a heavy use pad or sacrifice area? As we approach the end of the government’s fiscal year, anyone with an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) contract should touch base with his local Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist to ensure that your practices scheduled for this year have all been completed, or to discuss any modifications that may be needed.
The “game” of farming has many challenges and rewards these days and hopefully you have made the right decisions to be able to play another round.
(The author is a district conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.)