Cattle success begins with pasture health

Watching what happens on the land can help producers make decisions such as carrying capacity and stocking rates

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — If cows are the factory and calves are the product, then the pasture is the foundation for the factory.

“Most successful producers really begin their management at the pasture level,” said Hugh Aljoe, a pasture and range consultant with the Noble Research Institute.

Minding what happens on the land aids decisions like carrying capacity and stocking rates, he said at a pasture seminar held during the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention held in San Antonio.

“Grazing and productivity is important to the land, so is raising your profitability,” he said.

The Noble Research Institute was established in 1945 in Oklahoma to help farmers and ranchers focus on improved livestock production, land stewardship and profitability. Set up as a foundation, it owns 14,000 acres, 600 cows and between 600 and 1,000 stockers.

Aljoe offered a series of tips to improve pasture management.

First, it is important to understand the influence of rainfall on the ranch. Rainfall affects growing patterns and recharges the soil profile.

October is the beginning of the water year so producers should look at water accumulation then and keep annual records to calculate long-term averages for the area.

“When you get to spring, you should expect some accumulation to tell us whether we are going to have potential for a good spring or is it going to be a bit low,” he said.

“The difference between a good and bad year may be 30 percent in forage production.

“At the end of March, you should have 40 percent of the water year.”

At that point consider stocking rates.

“If you don’t provide the management and get the rainfall early, we won’t achieve optimal production and that directly affects our stocking rate,” he said.

In 2011-12 when severe drought hit vast regions of the American west, some producers noted they had received 25 percent of normal rainfall when they should have received 65 percent by spring.

Some decided to start dispersing sooner rather than later because the cows would have more value early on. Others hoped for rain and ran out of feed and water because they did not plan early enough.

“We are not looking at small differences, we are looking at the magnitude. When you get beyond 10 to 15 percent of that variance change, that is when you can make decisions and decide early on if you should add cattle if the economics works, or you need to sell them,” he said.

“We all look smart when it rains.”

If April starts out dry, management decisions like stocking rates need to be considered on sparse pastures.

Every year, assess grass cover and bare ground. At the end of the season, examine residual ground cover.

In a dry year, the cows may end up eating residual material that would be better left as ground cover.

“For every month you have to force those cows to hustle a bit we may need to adjust our stocking rates,” he said.

Cow body condition scoring should be done at calving and weaning.

Outside experts should be consulted to assess pastures to make sure management is going in the right direction.

It is also recommended to take pictures of the pasture from the same spot every season to document changes.

Secondly, use grazing exclosures.

These cages can be used to measure forage use and can monitor grazing within the management plan. Don’t leave the cage in the same place. The cages can be placed in the best pastures to represent those where management decisions have been made.

Take pictures of the forage inside and outside the cage.

Producers are told cattle should graze half and leave half but Aljoe said that adage should mean half the leaf, not half the entire plant.

The leaves have the most feed quality and if too much is removed plants can suffer. More insulation on the ground protects the growing points so the plant can regrow in spring.

Winter feed is a big expense so producers should try to extend the grazing period as long as possible. It is more cost effective to take cows to grass than vice versa.

During the feeding months, producers need to calculate planned and actual time cattle need to be fed. If they have to be fed more months than expected then the pastures were probably overstocked.

When considering stocking rates and animal units, assess cow size and adjust accordingly. People often estimate their cows weigh 1,200 pounds but when looking at cull cow receipts at the auction or slaughterhouse, they are often much bigger.

Carrying capacity and stocking rates are not interchangeable terms.

Stocking density is the number of animals in a particular area at any moment and increases as the number of animals in a paddock increase or as paddock size decreases.

Carrying capacity is the number of animals a pasture can support for a grazing season. It is a measure of a pasture’s ability to produce enough forage to meet the animal requirements over the long term and is expressed in animal unit months.

Calculations for Canadian conditions may be found at the Beef Cattle Research Council website at www.beefresearch.ca/research-topic.cfm/grazing-management-48, or visit www.noble.org/ncba2020.

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