Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Are Current Pasture Conditions The Fault of Drought or MAnagement?

There is one thing I have noticed on nearly every ranch I have visited this year that disturbs me. Nearly every ranch has large areas of unused grass that cattle won't eat because it is gray, matted and rank. Some ranches have literally thousands of acres of this (currently) useless grass. The cause of this is not the drought, but conventional low density continuous grazing methods.

The biggest problem with low density grazing is that cattle are creatures of habit, as are many of their owners. Once cattle are located in an area they tend to keep going back to the same location. This results (especially on larger ranches) in cattle grazing one area to the ground while ignoring other areas which become entirely inedible for both livestock and wildlife. Either scenario results in little available forage for livestock or wildlife during times of drought. Why do the gray matted areas of grass exist?

They exist is because cattle have been comfortable in past years where they were at without grazing these areas. Without enough animal impact these areas have gone through their growth cycle several times to the point that two things happen. First, not enough sunlight is getting to the new grass to create the photosynthesis needed for growth. Secondly, when rains are measured in trace amounts of moisture rather than inches, not enough moisture reaches the ground to make grass grow. Is it possible to repair these areas enough to induce growth with minimal amounts of rain?

Actually it is simple. Many (if not most) ranches are feeding cake. Being the creatures of habit we are, we continue to feed the same cattle in the same area every time we feed. By feeding cake or hay on these dry matted areas we will be using herd effect to both trample the matted grass into the ground (allowing more sunlight for photosynthesis) while also tilling the ground with the hooves of the cattle, which allows rain to soak deeper into the ground.

For some reason, there are many people who do not believe that herd effect allows for more efficient plant use during times of minimal moisture. There is an easy experiment you can do to discover what herd impact has without using a single cow.

You can use either bare hard ground, or a patch of ground where you have gray matted grass. Measure out a 10 X 20 foot plot, then cut them in half. To simulate a short term, high density herd impact, rake one of the 10 X 10 about ½ and place a rain gauge at the halfway point of the dividing line. Place a sprinkler so that both plots receive the same amount of moisture, until the rain gauge has about ¼ inch. Then compare the amount of penetration of the water.

To see results from doing this, visit Dan Dagget on You-Tube for the kind of results you can achieve. As usual, your comments and suggestions are welcome!