Time to look at those grazing plans

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snowy pasture
Now is the time to start thinking about your grazing management plan. (Richard Purdin photo)

February is here, and that means we are halfway through winter. No matter what the groundhog says spring will soon be here, if you are anything like me, you are ready mentally and physically. 

Wintertime is probably my least favorite time of the year for many reasons; for one, my stature is not quite equipped for winter elements. Tall, lanky and weighing in at a whopping 126 pounds, I would probably receive a body condition between 1-2, if I was a cow. 

Speaking of body condition scores, many of my producers — including myself — are becoming very comfortable with scoring their livestock body condition. 

This is good because properly scoring their livestock body condition score can help them make proper management decisions such as proper feed rations, input purchases and culling decisions. 

The problem is that if you were to ask them what their pasture condition score is, they would probably give you a very strange look. 

Today, I want to discuss grazing management plans and why now is the time to start thinking about adjusting and evaluating results from past decisions. 

In my prior occupation, I assisted the Natural Resource Conservation Service with helping producers construct and implement grazing management plans. 

In the world of acronyms or I always like to say, alphabet soup, it was always a goal to make plans to walk the pastures with the producer and evaluate their current grazing practices, any resource concerns, discuss goals, potential cost-share practices and record pasture conditions. 

These first initial pasture walks usually occurred during the winter months due to the timing of government program funding. At first, I thought it was crazy and next to impossible to give a pasture a condition score, let alone construct a grazing plan when the grass was dormant, ground was frozen or fighting a snowstorm. 

As I matured and continued my efforts, I soon realized that the grazing management planning process almost must start in the winter. As a producer myself, I completely realize that when spring comes, you are too busy to start thinking about constructing a grazing plan. 

Here are some simple but important steps you can take now to be prepared to implement a grazing management plan for grazing season 2022. 

Take a drive

Visit your local U.S. Department of Agriculture government service center and talk to the folks in the natural resource conservation service and soil and water district. 

Also, think about reaching out to you local ag extension educator. These are all great technical sources to waiting to fill your arms full of fact sheets, record sheets, evaluation tools, bulletins and much more. 

While you’re driving, stop by the farm of someone who is already implementing grazing practices and share ideas with them. 

Take a walk

I am kind of a health nut, but if you have trouble walking or if you farm in southeastern Ohio where the cows have one leg too short to climb the hills, you might want to stay on an ATV. 

As you walk or drive the pasture, make sure to look down and see what is going on at the surface of the soil. It is amazing how much you can learn when you take time to look. 

Grazing management plans should be constructed with a holistic approach; your main goal is to make a profit from your pasture (it should be) but factors such as water quality, air quality, forage species adaptability, plant species diversity, weeds (noxious and invasive) and soil health should also be considered. 

Write down what you see. I always like to carry a pencil and pocket notebook; the reason why I choose a pencil is because my mind — just like most extension educators — is in a thousand places at once, and I must erase and redo a lot. 

Another reason for a pencil is that plans are always changing, so you should be ready to erase and start over again. Write down observations such as percentage of bare soil, forage species present, potential weed problems, site where livestock loaf/concentrate, current water sources and fencing conditions/locations. 

Make a list of goals

After you have taken a good look at your current pasture, you can start making goals for your future operation. Goals should be commonsense-driven, and you should avoid trying to change too much too quickly. 

I believe goals should be centered around two main factors: 

1. Economics. Make sure that your goal is not affordable but lucrative too. This means considering the cost in return of adding that new water to the pasture or reseeding the 30 acres pasture on the north side of the farm? 

Sometimes the simplest goals can pay the biggest dividends and not cost a lot of money, for example moving the cows off the pasture when the forage is 5 inches tall instead of 2 inches tall. 

2. Consider your life. When planning a grazing management plan consider time and labor. Reading the farm journal article about the guy that move 120 cows four times a day locked down on one-acre paddocks sounds great, but do you have the time to do it? 

Start slow and consider how much time you must allocate to moving cows. Many producers work off the farm so make your paddocks large enough to sustain cattle until you get home from work. 

Think about water

All grazing plans should be built around water sources. Consider how many cattle you will be grazing and how the water will move with the cows — will it be movable or stationary with paddocks built around the water? 

It is no fun, or maybe impossible, to run home in the summer on your lunch break to fill up an open tank of water with 30 head of thirsty cows (been there). 

Fence is not cheap. Utilize movable fence for interior fencing; this will save money. Making sure electric fence charges have the right amount of joules for the livestock that will be against the fence. Grounding and number of wires are very important considerations. 

Think about your livestock’s needs

Every farm has a portion of its pasture or hay fields that grow very well and have good quality forage species within it. Allocate these fields or pastures for livestock that need better nutrition. 

Time grazing with stages of production such as lactating versus dry, last trimester, offspring by their side, or feeder versus finishing animals. By doing this, you can make sure that you are getting the most out of the forage you have while making sure that livestock have the proper nutrition at the right time. 

Have a contingency plan

It is always good to have a plan B or C or even D. There are many factors that can arise, throwing a wrench into your plans; make sure to have another plan to go to. 

One of the most challenging factors to overcome is drought. I believe that you don’t know how well your grazing plan works until you try to implement it in a drought situation. Mother nature can throw other curveballs at you such as too much rain, tornado, arctic blast, or — for many in 2021 — fall armyworms. 

Time to put your plan into practice

This step really won’t begin until you start grazing, but planned practices can start even in the winter. Examples of winter practices include frost seeding, fixing fence, building new fence, taking care of the invasive species and culling those animals that are not quite working for you anymore. 

Have fun

Finally, have fun creating and implementing your grazing management plan. Don’t forget to get the family involved; grazing practices are great ways to get the next generation involved in the farm operation. 

I have heard from many producers that moving electric fence is a great summertime activity to keep the kids busy and a great learning activity. 

Remember that farming is both a way of life and a business. Make sure to take time and enjoy your family and chores — that is what farming is all about! 

If you have questions on grazing management planning, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at purdin.19@osu.edu or call 937-544-2339.

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