Sure… it’s all guesswork when you’re dealing with the weather, right? So why prepare?
By Loretta Sorensen
Once the dust of roundup and symphonies of weaning have died down, beef operators might have a few moments to contemplate what Spring 2018 will bring for their operation. While every pasture across the nation has unique properties and requires specific management skills, some of those principles are fairly universal. In penciling out your operation’s 2018 grazing strategy, these key activities could help launch a productive start to the season.
LOOK AT LAST YEAR
It’s no secret that every year brings interesting grazing challenges and requires grazing strategy modification on your grazing lands. Major events such as drought, fire, flood or insect damage can impact grazing strategies for more than one or two seasons.
Assistant Professor and Range Management Specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Mitchell Stephenson, says the amount of grass available in a particular pasture or paddock is heavily influenced by grazing activities in the prior season.
“Consider how much recovery time your pasture or rangeland had over the past season,” Stephenson says. “What kind of precipitation did you receive in the past year? How will that affect the amount of grass available to you in the upcoming season?”
Evaluating how a pasture or rangeland area was used in the past season should include consideration of both how heavily it was grazed and what time of year the area was grazed.
“There’s never a time when we recommend overgrazing an area,” Gene Schmitz, Livestock Specialist at the University of Missouri, says. “Be sure you understand the minimum requirements for grazing recovery.”
Soil conditions, forage types and rainfall all affect forage regrowth, but the basic principle of taking half, leaving half and never grazing cool season forages below 3 inches high is a reliable rule of thumb.
Scouting for weeds is a year-round chore, but managing new invasives or stepping up treatment for problem areas may require changes to an annual weed management plan.
A first step may be consulting local Extension or Natural Resources Conservation Service offices to identify treatment options or new developments in weed resistance.
“Most weed species, especially broadleaf weeds, have to be hit early, before they get much growth, to make weed treatments successful,” Stephenson says. “Some weeds respond well to fall herbicide treatment. If weeds are an issue in multiple areas, it’s helpful to map out those areas and develop a strategy to come back at the time of year when herbicide application is most effective.”
Schmitz notes that winter annual weeds are an indicator of either thin grass, overgrazed forage or some issue of forage and/or soil quality.
“Poor or deteriorating pasture areas could be the result of over grazing, drought conditions or some type of mismanagement,” Schmitz says. “An abundance of winter annuals means there’s too much bare ground in the pasture, and something’s going to grow there, competing for moisture and nutrients. It’s critical to find out why the forage base is declining.”
Forage experts as well as agronomists have an important grasp of how different chemical treatments affect certain types of weeds. Those experts can also provide information on when and how to use chemical weed treatment, as well as up-to-date information related to environmental factors related to specific chemicals.
Optimistic attitudes must be balanced by the reality of adverse conditions that could affect a beef operation at any point during the year. While it may not be the most pleasant exercise, having a written plan for best-possible responses to unforeseen events that reduce or damage pasture resources, handling facilities, etc. could impact the very survival of the operation.
“List your best options for responding to drought or fire or other types of significant issues,” Stephenson says. “Reducing stocking rates is just one option for coping with forage loss. Identifying other forage sources and thoroughly reviewing and considering best possible options will result in an easier and more successful response to drastic weather or other tragedies.”
In Missouri, and some parts of the eastern half of the country, beef operators often stockpile forage for strip grazing use in late fall or early winter. Determining the appropriate time to begin utilizing the stockpiled resource and considering how long it could or should last can help in managing late fall and early winter forage needs.
“This is a good practice for making the most of the season’s forage growth,” Schmitz adds. “The key to maximizing this practice’s efficiency is determining the optimum time to begin grazing it and how much of the stockpile to graze at one time.”
Grazing rotation plans aren’t “one and done.” Successful and optimum rotation plans vary from season to season and even week to week.
“What did your rotational grazing plan accomplish this past season, and what do you want it to accomplish in the coming season? That’s the first question to ask,” Schmitz suggests. “Was the animal rate of gain satisfactory? Was grazing pressure on each paddock acceptable? What are your grazing management notes revealing about your grazing success?”
Maintaining notes on each grazing paddock or pasture can reveal which areas are most productive. Investigating why one area performs better than others could lead to increased overall production or expose a need to revise the rotation plan to make better use of a specific area.
“You can’t change your soil base,” Schmitz points out. “But adding amendments to soil, based on a current soil test, may be an economic advantage and help to avoid use of soil inputs where they’re not effective. Target equal production across the paddocks and realize all paddocks may not be the same size.”
Rotation assessment may also indicate the need to modify paddock size in order to make the most of productive areas and avoid grazing abuse on others. Riparian areas typically provide greater forage quantity and livestock are naturally drawn to the water. When riparian areas are incorporated into pastures and paddocks, management decisions can result in maximizing their resources.
“You want to carefully manage an area with both uplands and riparian area to create uniform grazing of both resources,” Stephenson says. “That could mean strategic grazing timing, fencing or other tools to help control when and where cattle graze.”
Identifying a “sacrifice” paddock can also assist in effectively dealing with unexpected winter events that require holding cattle in one area for extended periods of time.
“In our area, some producers rotate cattle through paddocks during winter,” Schmitz says. “If that’s the case, it’s important to have a paddock you can use, which you know will sustain some abuse. There are times when you have to sacrifice one area and deal with fixing it later.”
Don’t carve any grazing plan in stone. Make room for adjustments.
“Don’t just use the calendar for turnout dates or rotation dates,” Stephenson advises. “Look at each paddock as a unit and base decisions on what happened there last year, what weather is doing this year, and your precipitation outlook. Many things can happen over the span of a year.”
NEVER STOP LEARNING
Winter may bring opportunities to attend conferences, seminars and training events that can help the most experienced operators polish skills or add a new tool to their skill set.
“Some producers, regardless of age, are curious and willing to learn,” Schmitz says. “Finding information you can sort through helps improve upon what you already know and do. Be willing to find out what’s out there.”
In addition to a focus on grazing and beef production, Schmitz encourages beef operators to consider participation in other conference venues such as business and marketing.
“Maybe you need to learn more about employee management or you just want to broaden your knowledge base,” Schmitz adds. “At times, beef operators may work harder mentally than physically to successfully manage their operation.”
Laurie Lanier, VA
Maintaining notes on each grazing paddock or pasture can reveal which areas are most productive. Why does one area perform better than another? Your observations could lead to increased overall pastureland production.
“You want to carefully manage an area with both uplands and riparian area to create uniform grazing of both resources,” suggests University of Nebraska’s Mitchell Stephenson.