Monday, May 23, 2011

Grazing Observations

This past week I had the opportunity to take a road trip through the drought ridden Texas Hill Country. This week I would like to share my observations and give some suggestions as to improving forage management. These suggestions will work in any part of the country.

Just by the fencing systems in place, it was easy to tell which places were practicing rotational grazing, and which ones were grazing continuously. While the rotational grazing systems were in slightly better condition than continuous grazing systems, a few things stuck out like a Charlois bull in an Angus cowherd.

First, livestock in both groups are practicing selective grazing. Areas of pastures in both groups would be eaten down to bare ground, while other areas would contain grass that was nearly two feet tall.

The second thing which stuck out like that Charolis bull really surprised me. I expected to see cattle scattered out with each animal grazing (selectively) in its own direction. I did not expect to see that behavior in sheep! I have long been chided with the comment "Are you raising cattle or sheep?" because of the way my cattle graze in a mob like sheep (used to) do.

The third thing that stuck out was that the animals were avoiding the taller grass and grazing the areas which were already grazed to the ground. This was true both in areas being grazed rotaionally as well as continuously. To acheive optimal re-growth, we need to make sure that grasses are not grazed down to the ground. This means we need to leave several inches of grass behind during the growing season to stimulate growth. Allowing selective grazing which takes all of the grass in one area while leaving other areas untouched is not only what causes over grazing, it is also less efficient utilization of forage.

Most stockmen (incorrectly) assume that selective grazing comes with the territory. Then there are those who will try to eliminate it  by strip grazing with temporary electric fence. While the latter will work, it increases labor inputs as well as fence maintenance inputs. However if we learn to take advantage of the natural instinct of grazing animals to act, and graze, as a herd, we will be able to eliminate selective grazing while adding no additional inputs on fencing.

The above observation of sheep grazing spread out like cattle is an indicator that they are being handled in the same way which has destroyed their instinct to graze as a herd. The hardest part of re-instilling this instinct is in accepting that we are to blame for it, and in changing our own methods of handling livestock. Depending on the class of livestock and how badly they have been handled over time, this instinct to graze as a herd can be established in under a week. For older herds which have always had a lot of stress when handled, it may take as long as six weeks. The benefits are well worth the effort with the elimination of selective grazing, elimination of extra fencing, higher gains from the reduction in stress as well as lower labor costs when it comes time for working cattle during branding, weaning or any other time. For more information on how cattle act as a herd, and how to get them started, visit my main website. If you would like to train your cattle to act as a herd, and would like help feel free to contact me.