Pasture capacity must not be pushed

Alberta rancher and grazing expert says producers must know their pastures’ limits and reduce the herd if necessary

CLARESHOLM, Alta. — Rainfall in recent weeks has brought a temporary reprieve to parched pastures in some parts of the Prairies, but the spectre of drought still looms.

Good grazing management won’t cure the issue of dry pastures, but it is essential if grass is expected to recover and thrive when rain does come. The other part of managing grazing during drought involves recognition of limitations.

“I think the best advice I can say is to really try to recognize where you’re at on your place, with your forage supply, your pasture supply but also your winter feed supply. Be realistic and honest with yourself, where you’re at,” said grazing expert Jim Bauer, who also operates Anchor JB Ranch near Acme, Alta.

“If we just keep going (with) overgrazed pastures, we harm that resource. At some point you have to recognize that the best thing you can do is to start to destock.”

That is already occurring in some parts of the Prairies. Canfax has reported larger numbers of cows arriving at auction and lower prices because of that increase.

“If it’s a mild drought, just a dry spell during a summer in a typical year, maybe you just need to manage pastures better … and then you can get through a lot of that stuff by having a healthier grassland,” he said.

“But even with healthy grasslands, when you get into a severe longer-term drought like we’ve had over the last three years, (stock numbers must be assessed).”

Bauer was a featured speaker at a June 25 event organized by the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association, hosted at VXV Farms west of Claresholm. He was instrumental in starting the Grey Wooded Soils Association and has run many grazing schools on his own ranch and elsewhere.

He praised the rotational grazing system employed at VXV Farms, which uses electric fencing and multiple paddocks to move the Beef Booster cattle herd across grazing land.

He took a tour group through various pastures: some yet to be grazed this season and others that have already been grazed for various periods this spring. Bauer discussed the merits of jointed and smooth grasses and the importance of growing points with respect to grazing.

June is prime time for pasture growth, he said, and graziers should not attempt to “keep up to the grass” by heavily grazing their stock.

“If you keep up to your grass in June … you’ll probably be out of grass in September,” said Bauer.

“You don’t want to keep up to your grass right now.”

However, early grazing is useful in highly productive pastures, so long as duration is considered.

“You have to start grazing early and then move on.”

He encouraged ranchers to think about grazing — and overgrazing — in terms of biological time, rather than hours and days on pasture. Grass grows quickest in June, given the right conditions, so “one biological day in June is worth three or four in August.”

Queried about dandelions, Bauer had quick answers.

“People hate them and cows love them,” he said.

“I do not see a problem with dandelions. Get over it, if you don’t like them, because cows do.”

Dandelions are nutritious and have the added benefit of appearing early in the grazing season, thus providing good forage.

Bauer also encouraged graziers to use their sense of touch to gauge fibre levels in forage and to pay attention to the shape of cow pies, which provide further clues.

“When we talk about pasture nutrition, basically the quality in the grass is based on how much fibre is in the plant. So younger grass that’s more vegetative and has lower fibre content in it is more digestible,” said Bauer.

“It will be higher protein, higher in energy and it passes through the cow quicker so they can gain faster. They can just put more feed through them.

“You can actually see that in the manure that’s left behind. So I say two things: you can feel forage quality by how soft the grass is, or how stiff and pokey it is. Softness is less fibre … but then you can also see it in what comes out the back of the cow.

“So if (the manure) piles up, it’s got more fibre in it. It’s stiffer and it took longer to go through her. It’s lower in energy, lower in protein. And if it lays out flat … there’s less fibre in it.”

Barry Yaremcio, Alberta Agriculture beef and forage specialist, said dry conditions have forced plants to head out or bloom earlier than usual, which affects yield and forage quality.

Once seed starts to form, protein content shrinks by one to 1.5 percent per week. Rotational grazing can help keep plants in a vegetative state, allowing producers to extend the grazing period.

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