Visualize, Document and Execute a Future Grazing Plan


For cow-calf producers during a year of normal rainfall in the Midwest, a detailed grazing plan to manage resources in an efficient and productive manner can be supportive.

In 2021, with drier than normal conditions pressuring grazing lands, it’s even more critical not only to analyze current results of lower rainfall but also to develop the pieces of a realistic expanded vision for those pastures.

Adapting for Changing Conditions

According to Mitchell Stephenson, Ph.D., University of Nebraska-Lincoln range and forage management specialist, comprehensive grazing plans need to be adaptive to changing circumstances and stressors, but first and foremost, they need to be kick-started.

“Put something in place for when conditions change because chances are, they will,” Stephenson says. “Before the season begins, decide when we’re going to graze pastures and how much rest we’ll provide, especially during the growing season. When changes occur, no matter if it’s drought or too wet, we adjust based on what’s been visualized.”

To begin, he suggests ranchers think about their grassland’s plant community and make estimates on biomass amounts. Clipping and weighing forage samples is an accurate means of obtaining an estimate.

“In Nebraska, we have important components of both warm and cool seasons, so depending on when dry conditions or rains start, this influences the quantity and quality of biomass.”

To access data needed for informed decisions, Stephenson says it’s extremely helpful to keep detailed records of what was grazed, how the weather was at the time and rainfall levels.

“If we can reference how many animal unit months (AUMs) or cattle we had and related precipitation records – and keep those side by side – we’re able to see what happened afterword. We’ll know what worked or didn’t work, and then implement different management strategies next time if needed.”

Stephenson explains that a flexible, fluid, measured plan is the best tactic to counteract poor weather situations and help make informed choices. When reduced precipitation during a growing season equates to less forage, information is handy to assist with adaptive management.

“Whether we have precipitation, hailstorms or even fire, if we have our set approach, but also contingencies on what to do if variable situations arise, there are additional opportunities available.”

Dated Records, Stocking Rates and Rotational Grazing

Ashley Garrelts, project coordinator for the Sandhills Task Force, echoes Stephenson’s emphasis on assessing a ranch’s forage and biomass, and considers a resource inventory crucial to any plan. Some landowners prefer to know pounds or stock days per acre or animal unit months. For each of those estimations, online apps, soil surveys, Grazing Response Index (GRI) numbers plus clipping, weighing and sampling biomass can assist.

“It’s a good starting point to compare what could be and what is,” she says. “What do ranchers want to do? Get more out of the resources? Raise more cattle? Or do they think their system works and just needs tweaks? Goals for the ranch and the range resource are critical.”

Garrelts explains some operations stock at optimum, some on the light side to save grass and some use more resources than they have. Flexibility helps balance numbers and grass, even when precipitation amounts or adverse weather alter original strategies.

“I encourage ranchers to include dates. If there isn’t enough rain to grow forage by a certain date, what will they do? If the winter is dry and it doesn’t rain in April, May or June, what will happen? Will they sell cows, lease more pasture or buy hay? Each operation is different, but tying decisions to dates makes choices easier, even in extreme circumstances such as droughts or flooding.”

Garrelts steers ranchers toward practicing rotational grazing if possible and always penciling rest periods into timelines. Moving cattle from plot to plot offers more flexibility and options.

“Even in a rotational program, we don’t want to graze the same pasture at the same time year after year. For example, in a four-plot rotation, the first pasture in 2021 might be the last in 2022. Also, we don’t want to go into a pasture twice in one growing season, except when grasses go dormant after freeze-up. Otherwise, 45 days or more of rest is advised.”

Likewise, stocking density and rates make a large difference, especially for those using season-long grazing. With the correct number of animals, plants won’t be hit as often as they would with too large a group. Garrelts says season-long systems work, but ranchers should pay strict attention to rates.

Being Proactive and Protecting the Future

It’s important to be proactive with a grazing plan so changes can be implemented in real time, says Justin Linder, resource conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“If it’s dry and no rain is forecasted, weaning early, pulling cows off or feeding hay could be options. Different practices allow ranchers to lessen the impact of today to strengthen the future,” he says.

He explains that if the future is disregarded and overgrazing occurs, coming years will be adversely affected. The ripple effect leads to cattle being sent to grass later to allow a chance to regrow and recover. With a proactive plan featuring real-time modification, both the present and future seasons are protected.

“Quality managers see long term for the betterment of everything, even if decisions aren’t easy to make. They might include selling cows, or adding inputs such as hay at extra costs, but if a proactive plan is set up with details outlining what actions to take, the future reaches further than just today.”

Linder says numerous tools and templates are available from various sources to work in unison with a rancher’s goals. Ecological site data, university research, national resource inventories, pasture mapping and tracking software can all be useful in devising executable strategies.

“The nuts and bolts come back to developing a flexible grazing plan up front,” Linder emphasizes. “Having ongoing data provides a better picture of shifting scenarios. It all comes together balancing the demand of the livestock and the production to improve profitability and support the environment by protecting grasslands.

Written By: Bruce Derksen, Contributing Writer
Source: Nebraska Cattleman November 2021 Issue

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