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Grazing management and spring green-up

By Shaan Bliss
Special to The SUN

Going into our second year of below average snowpack may have you thinking about the impacts on your ranch or grazing leased pasture.

Have you noticed an overabundance of a particular weedy plant that you’ve never seen before? Wonder how many cows to stock on your pasture?

The Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends a stocking rate that only uses 50 percent of the available forage grown in one year. Leaving a stubble residue for next year is an insurance investment to keep those grasses growing healthy, protecting root development and plant crowns from surface temperature swings. During droughty years, this becomes even more apparent as grazed pastures lose the resilience they had under wetter years.

Many ranches and pasture in the county don’t have the infrastructure of cross fencing and thus have one open pasture. These open areas really can really take a beating if grazed the entire growing season. The best recommendation in those situations if cross fencing is not an option is to start your grazing season later rather than earlier. This will allow plants enough time to get a healthy start for root development with their leaves acting like solar panels. Coming on to a pasture too early in a continuous grazed situation can lead to loss of preferred plants, increased bare ground, plants dying and potential weed infestations. The reason is because those first leaf blades are a plant’s first chance to produce new energy and growth for this year. When grazed too early, they lose that opportunity and end up having to use stored energy from the roots to grow new leaf blades. NRCS recommends delaying grazing a pasture until grasses reach a height of 6-8 inches.

Grazing animals are naturally going to prefer the most palatable plants over less palatable plants. This selection process is deterred somewhat with cross fencing. Historically, grasses developed with some level of grazing, but predators encouraged the constant movement of herbivores so that areas were not typically grazed all season long. Cross-fencing and rotating grazing animals in a way mimics the effects of historic predator by keeping grazing animals moving to other pastures. In some cases, a temporary hot wire fence can be used to move animals across a pasture. By having animals in smaller pastures, you force animals to be less selective and improve utilization across the pasture. It’s kind of like being at the buffet line or a weight watchers participant. One gives you full access to whatever you want and the other limits the diet selection you have to choose from. Given the choice, we all go for the sweet stuff first and repeatedly. Pastures are grazed to a similar extent. Those most palatable plants are like ice-cream and get grazed heaviest and hardest when the plant is most palatable. So, cross-fencing gives a previously grazed pasture time to rest and recover before being grazed again. A good grazing plan should try to keep a mix of these “ice-cream” plants and less palatable plants. The objective of a good grazing management plan is to encourage diversification in a pasture. A pasture with a diverse set of plants has healthier soils and is more resilient as a system versus a monoculture of only a few plant species. In droughty years, these more diverse pastures will typically experience fewer impacts than a less diverse pasture.

Consider all your options for grazing improvement as well as water developments. Give the NCRS a call if you have questions about grazing improvements for your ranch or leased ground. The NCRS has financial assistance programs for those who qualify for ranch and farm improvements, and also provides a free no-obligation, comprehensive grazing plan with alternatives and grazing improvements.

Call Shaan Bliss, rangeland management specialist, at 731-3615 to schedule an appointment.

This story was posted on April 25, 2013.