DUNDURN, Sask. — Determining a grazing and pasture formula is as much art as it is science.
“The blend that would be right for one may not be right for the next person,” said Nadia Mori, Saskatchewan Agriculture range management extension specialist based in Watrous, Sask.
Producers thinking about establishing an expensive new grazing stand must be certain they are clear on several key issues, including the nutritional requirements of the animals to be grazed, the site’s environmental conditions and whether the stand will be for grazing, hay or dual purpose, she said during the healthy sheep and goat field day in Dundurn earlier this summer.
Nutritional requirements and dietary preferences for sheep and goats are not the same. Sheep favour forage while goats tend to browse.
Whether producers are grazing sheep, goats, cattle or any combination, they need to know if they want hay, grazing or a dual-purpose stand before choosing different plant species.
Then they need to know their specific environmental limitations or conditions: expected moisture levels, soil zone and salinity.
Experience using certain grass and forage species can also be a factor. Many producers avoid Russian wild rye, for example.
“Some people just hate it with a passion. Some people like it a lot and it fits into their situation,” Mori said.
Grazing systems can use grass to provide bulk and roughage, but legumes, such as alfalfa, are used to increase protein content.
“The personal aspect comes into play because oftentimes we’ll want to include legumes like alfalfa, but producers all have very different comfort levels with alfalfa because of the bloat risk. Some producers only want very small percentages like five percent of alfalfa, while another producer is quite comfortable with 25 percent,” she said.
“You’re still having to balance that with the nutritional need of the animal in the state that the animal is at. Is it just maintenance? Is it lactation? Is it breeding period? Where is that animal at and what does it need?”
Longevity of the stand is another consideration.
“Usually if we just leave a (tame pasture) stand without rejuvenation, then after about seven years we’ll start seeing a bit of decrease in productivity,” said Mori.
“That’s because the nutrient levels will go down if we don’t add anything to it at that time.”
She said some producers chose their pasture species based on personal preference. It might be the perfect species for that land, for the desired use and for the soil limitations, but the producer may reject it because they have had a bad experience with it.
Producers can also have other reasons to select certain species.
“Maybe they need a pasture for very early in the season. Maybe they have some native pasture and they need some tame pasture to complement that. Maybe their main goal is to stabilize the soil of that field that they’re trying to seed. It may be a very saline soil or a very fragile soil and the main goal is to stabilize that,” she said.
Mori cautions against pre-mixed blends and recommends custom blends suited for specific goals.
Historically, smooth brome was the go-to grass, made popular during the 1930s to stop erosion.
However, since then different species have been bred. For example, a fast-growing meadow brome might be a better option for some pastures.
“If your stand is primarily for grazing, I would recommend meadow brome any day over the other bromes because it keeps the growing points close to the ground and tolerates the grazing and regrowth much better,” Mori said.
However, she said trying to hay meadow brome can be difficult because of its low growing point.
Mori said the Saskatchewan Forage Council website can help producers decide which species might work for them.
“They have a really great tool where you can input which soil zone you’re in, what sort of soil limitations you’re dealing with, and it spits out the grasses that would be most suited in your area,” she said.
“Still take (it) with a huge grain of salt, but it’ll at least give you an idea of what general direction to go in.”
Mori said funding is available for those eligible through the Farm Stewardship Program for seeding tame and native forages if producers are converting areas that have previously been in annual crop.