Grazing for the landscape: McGrath highlights strategies to improve range
“One of the things we need to think about when we’re talking about adaptive grazing is it’s not necessarily about 10,000 miles of electric fence and moving cattle every two hours,” commented Sean McGrath, a rancher and consultant on ranch and grazing management. “It’s really using our resources that we have available in whatever region we’re in and on our operation to match plans and animals together over the course of a year.”
During a webinar, titled “Adaptive Grazing and Grazing Management,” held on Feb. 12, McGrath explained ranchers will use different techniques to adapt to the grazing conditions on individual farms and ranches.
Key principles of grazing
As cattle producers in range situations, McGrath said, “We’re in the business of capturing sunlight and water and converting it into food.”
In these systems, plants – including both native grasses and forbs and invasive species and weeds – want to grow, and land managers desire plant growth. As a result, managers must make decisions to foster plant growth.
“We all know our operations need to focus on energy efficiency,” McGrath said. “On our ranches, these plants are solar panels. To make them efficient, we need to make sure that our solar panels, the plants, cover the ground.”
While the forage is important, McGrath said producers must also match the cow’s energy requirement to the available forage.
“When the cow’s energy requirements are lowest, we want the lowest quality forage,” he said, noting crude protein requirements are smallestduring the second trimester of pregnancy. “During rebreeding, crude protein and energy recruitments jump dramatically.”
“Basically, that cow has a three-month-old calf, is trying to get in shape to re-breed and has huge requirements. In a perfect world, that would be when we have the most and highest quality forage available for that cow,” McGrath said. “When we’re designing these systems, we may have to supplement cows or we need to plan our grazing and breeding times.”
During plant growth, yield increases over time as the plant grows, but quality in terms of crude protein declines.
“Where we’re really trying to focus our grazing is to keep plants in phase two,” McGrath said, noting plants have some leaves but have not yet completely matured or dried out.
McGrath further uses grass hay fields as an example of plant growth.
“We would never cut a hay field June 1 and come back on June 10 to cut it again,” he said. “We would allow the hay field to recover before we take more hay to maximize yield and quality. Pastures are no different.”
The biggest question, McGrath said, is how to influence cows to graze where and when we want them to. Influencing grazing allows ranchers to get the most from their pastures.
“We want to match plant growth to our cow requirements,” McGrath commented.
Electric fence can be a useful tool for ranchers to use to create smaller pastures that influence cattle to utilize grass better.
“We talk about electric fence because it can be cost efficient,” he said. “The biggest problem we run into when we’re working with electric fence is people don’t put enough ground rods in.”
Wildlife damage can be another concern, but McGrath said wildlife will also learn to avoid it.
“We use a lot of portable fence to control grazing on paddocks, depending on weather,” he described. “When we look at costs, it takes one-third of the posts and significantly less wire, as well as significantly less labor.”
In the wintertime, however, fences may not be as conductive, and a ground wire may help, he added.
After a pasture is separated into various paddocks, McGrath said he doesn’t like using the term “rotational” to describe the grazing strategy.
“I don’t like the term rotational grazing. It implies we start at one paddock, then go to the second and third the same way year after year,” he commented. “We want to start in the paddock with the best condition. A good rule of thumb is, when we have a paddock in better condition than the one cows are currently in, move to that paddock.”
Not using a set route through paddocks allows grass to be used after it has had the most recovery.
“Not all terrain is conducive to electric fence, so we use the landscape and natural features of the landscape to control cattle movement,” McGrath said.
Steep hills, rivers or streams and other features can help to control cattle. While the natural features may not work perfectly, they can help to influence cattle movement.
Short fences, combined with natural features, however can be very effective.
“Just accessing and using the landscape available can be a very effective solution in using grazing to improve the landscape,” he said.
Moving salt and mineral around pastures to influence utilization, as well as feeding in different areas of pastures can accomplish two goals. It allows ranchers to meet their cow’s nutritional needs while also moving the cattle across the landscape.
“We can also move water around an operation, and cattle will follow the water,” McGrath explained. “We can move animals around and use our forage base without building 500 miles of fence.”
“Adaptive Grazing and Grazing Management” was sponsored by the Beef Cattle Research Council.
Saige Albert, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.