Successful grazing balances profits, nutritional needs

It’s important to avoid overgrazing and allow enough recovery time

RED DEER — Grazing is designed to increase producer profits while also meeting the nutritional needs of livestock.

Joshua Dukart of North Dakota factors in the needs of wildlife as well.

Dukart uses holistic management to rebuild grass and soil but also keeps an open mind when it comes to altering plans mid season to adapt to the weather, the cattle and the available grazing land.

Dukart includes wildlife in the plan because he said even through he may not like having elk on his ranch, they are the reality.

“Don’t get bogged down with the idea that whatever you adopt, you have to do it everywhere,” he told the Alberta Sheep Breeders Symposium held in Red Deer this fall.

He calls his system purposeful grazing to get animals to the right place at the right time for the right reasons.

The most important thing is to make sure enough forage is left to avoid overgrazing and allow for recovery time.

“This is probably the most underrated item that I know of in grazing management,” he said.

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Recovery time starts once animals leave an area and lasts as long as they are off the pasture. This gives plants time to regrow, reproduce roots and rebuild soil.

Overgrazing can happen for a variety of reasons:

  • Individual plants can be overgrazed if animals stay too long in a pasture. The paddock can be patchy where some plants are not grazed while others are clipped off.
  • Animals return to a paddock too soon.
  • Animals graze too soon following dormancy, which stunts regrowth.

“The more paddocks you build, the more recovery time you are going to build in there,” Dukart said.

“It is all about moving in a direction where you hit a point you are comfortable with.”

Dukart might mob graze for a short period on a particular spot to get rid of undesirable plants and then move cattle to the next pasture.

He may also move cattle every day to stimulate growth but then return to a longer rotation in which they are moved every two weeks.

Dukart said he was taught to always keep plants in their vegetative state, but he has learned that that depends on the animals’ nutritional needs, which is where it becomes important be flexible.

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“Livestock at certain times of the year need to be in performance mode, which means most of the emphasis has to be placed on their specific nutritional needs,” he said.

These periods may be breeding season, calving-lambing, weaning and lactating.

Cows’ nutritional requirements drop off after weaning, which means, cows can go on a pasture where the grass is more fibrous with more lignan and less green material.

Dukart said he has also learned new tricks by matching cow types to fit his grazing plans. He also grazes cattle and sheep on the same fields because they select different plants.

He moved his calving period from February to March to May and June, which is when forage is growing and provides more nutrition.

He said sometimes human intervention is necessary to improve land, but he prefers to use livestock for the task.

“We try and let nature do as much of the heavy lifting as possible,” he said.

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Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com