VIDEO: Overgrazing starts with a ‘fear of wasting grass’

Grazing consultant says management can ensure the best possible use of grass, whether it is being grazed, hayed or rested

FORT MACLEOD, Alta. — It wasn’t exactly a meeting of Overgrazers Anonymous, though grazing consultant Jim Gerrish called it that, tongue in cheek.

In fact, those enrolled in a three-day grazing school are probably least likely to overgraze grassland and pasture by virtue of their attendance and what they learned.

Gerrish had participants take what he called “the first step to rehabilitation” by reciting aloud one major concept: “I will have no fear of wasting grass.”

That fear is common among ranchers, said Gerrish, but management can ensure the best possible use of grass, whether it is being grazed, hayed or rested.

The Idaho resident operates American Grazing Lands Services LLC, and his Aug. 15-17 workshop was organized by the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association. An acknowledged expert on grazing, Gerrish has held workshops in Alberta nine times in the past 15 years and has found willing audiences.

“One of the reasons is because of BSE,” he said in an interview.

“It forced the Canadian cattle industry to get a lot more lean and mean, managed, be more conscious of their costs. Because the price for Canadian beef was depressed for long after the BSE outbreak, that yes, Canadian cattlemen are more willing to make a change because they were forced into that position because of BSE.”

Gerrish is a cattle and sheep producer who also spent 22 years on the faculty at the University of Missouri and many more years instructing at the University of Idaho. That might explain his easy lecture style, whether in a community hall or a cow pasture.

He used both during his workshop while emphasizing the value of working with, rather than against, what nature offers.

“When you buy an acre of land, you are buy a 43,560 sq. foot solar panel,” said Gerrish.

“How much of the potential energy that we can use … are you actually capturing?”

That same square footage is a water catchment area and a source of soil and minerals, he added, and the same question about capture must be asked.

Farmers can ask those questions too, said Gerrish, but farming today involves “following a recipe,” whereas with grazing cattle, “our combine is a living, breathing organism.”

“I grew up as a crop farmer,” he told the ranchers and graziers attending the workshop.

“I eventually got over it.”

Grazing cattle may seem like a basic exercise, but it has had its share of approaches and descriptions over the years. In the 1970s, controlled grazing was the most common term. Then came short-duration, high-intensity grazing.

That was followed by holistic planned grazing, a product of ecologist Allan Savory’s approach, Gerrish said.

After that, ultra-high stock intensity grazing became the new angle, followed by adaptive multi-paddock grazing, mob grazing, grazing tall, rational grazing and ultimately Gerrish’s approach, which he calls management intensive grazing.

“Cows intensively graze. People intensively manage,” he said.

“Think in terms of intensifying management.”

Gerrish talked about overstocking and overgrazing, which are not the same thing even though the terms are often used interchangeably to describe pasture depletion.

Overstocking is placing more animals than the resource will bear, but overgrazing is leaving animals on a pasture too long or returning them too soon to the same pasture.

Overstocking is a numbers function, said Gerrish, but overgrazing is a time function and happens one plant at a time.

“A ranch can be understocked and overgrazed simultaneously,” he added.

Animals that aren’t challenged to graze all the plants in a pasture will pick and choose the tastiest plants, overgrazing those areas.

There’s a perennial question for ranchers: when is a pasture ready for grazing? Gerrish has a succinct answer.

“It depends.”

Total leaf area of plants in the pasture is a better guide than plant height when it comes to answering the question, he said. Plants with fewer than three leaves are likely in a negative carbohydrate balance, making it too soon to graze.

As a guideline, he suggested a ratio of five sq. feet of leaf to one sq. foot of soil as the point where grazing should begin.

Gerrish also distinguishes between rangeland and pasture.

Rangeland has predominantly native plants and lower rainfall, so the primary management objective is to capture and keep water.

Pasture, on the other hand, may have a mix of native and non-native plants, including grasses, legumes and forbs with more ability to capture sunlight. In that case, management is mostly about solar capture.

Gerrish also talked about cows’ ability to use plant nutrients and return many of them to the soil. He estimated that a 1,200 pound cow with calf at side, grazing for seven months, will eat six tons of dry matter forage and move about $500 worth of those forage nutrients around through urine and feces. Plants can use nutrients in urine almost immediately, while fecal nutrients break down over time.

Haying a pasture instead of grazing it has consequences for soil nutrition. Gerrish said each ton of hay removes 40 to 60 lb. of nitrogen, six lb. of elemental phosphorus and 40 to 50 lb. of potassium. Fail to replace those and “it becomes a mining operation.”

Grazing to produce 500 lb. of beef per acre removes 16 lb. of nitrogen, five lb. of phosphorus and one lb. of potassium.

In an interview, Gerrish said people are gaining greater understanding about the value of grazing to the environment, ecosystem and biodiversity.

“That is one of the motivating factors in enterprises that are mixed crop and livestock operations,” he said.

“When commodity prices are low, those cropping systems are just so marginal in profitability that they’re looking for other enterprises and what they’re finding is … they’re now bringing livestock back into their operations.”

Even so, constant loss of rangeland and pasture to cultivation is disturbing, he added.

“I have to wonder about our people in our agriculture community sometimes that they are still willing to continue to degrade the land when there is so much evidence that we have pushed things too far and we do need to change how we do our business,” he said.

“I do not understand it. I just cannot pretend to understand it.”

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