The term may be “planned” grazing, but the plan may not survive contact with the field.
That was the message that provincial livestock specialists Pam Iwanchysko and Jane Thornton recently made during a planned grazing workshop at the Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives site.
“There’s no silver bullet in any grazing system,” Thornton said. “I think if someone hands you something and says, ‘Do twice over’ (grazing), or, ‘Do management intensive,’ or ‘Do planned grazing,’ — they’re all just names for grazing systems. Behind that, there’s a lot of principles that go along with how the plants grow and how much rest they need and what kind of nutrition your cattle need and it’s all kind of mixed up in one.”
Planned grazing, or rotational grazing or mob grazing — all terms for grazing systems based on the premise of a short, intense graze, followed by long rest — has become a buzzphrase among farmers looking to strike a balance between environmental impact and profit. Groups like Manitoba Beef Producers have adopted carbon sequestration, one of the touted benefits of planned grazing, as part of their carbon policy, while conservationists have argued that adaptive grazing can be tied to better soil health, soil structure, land reclamation and biodiversity.
At the same time, the logistics of jumping into high management, high stock density grazing needing extra fencing, water and labour may be daunting for the producer who already feels there are too few hours in the day. High-intensity systems, which have provided some of the most convincing results in favour of adaptive grazing, may involve moving livestock through one or more paddocks a day.
“It does mean that you have to be home every day,” Thornton said. “Which is not something that all farmers have the luxury of having. Some of them work on the side. Some of them have to do all the haying too or some also raise crops. There’s times and periods there where you don’t want that kind of system.”
Start with a fence
Thornton and Iwanchysko urged producers to start with even a single fence or to control animal movement through strategies such as moving mineral, both of which they say will help with nutrient distribution.
Placing mineral next to water encourages overgrazing in that area, lopsided nutrient load as cattle drop manure in that one spot and unevenly grazed pastures, Iwanchysko said. Likewise, if cattle aren’t given incentive to move early in the year, Thornton said, they will overgraze one area while the rest of the pasture matures to become less palatable.
Both said nutrient distribution would be more even if mineral was separated from water and periodically moved, even in a continually grazed pasture.
Iwanchysko urged producers who do want to take on more intensive grazing to plan, but leave room for change. She has spent several years comparing continuous grazing with different adaptive grazing plans, and pointed to the changes in her own program year to year and even within a season. Starting with four-acre paddocks, she has since moved to one-acre paddocks, with the 25 cow-calf pairs moved once a day.
With the four-acre paddocks, Iwanchysko has tried a one-paddock-per-day mob graze in early spring to trick forage into staying vegetative, before settling into a longer rotation between paddocks (something she says hurt pastures last year when they didn’t get the needed rest, combined with dry conditions). In wetter years, she has hayed paddocks to keep them in a vegetative state if forages started to outstrip the herd.
Her rotations have also changed. Iwanchysko now argues that ideally, producers should move cattle through paddocks according to forage growth and rest rather than sequential order, and start in a different paddock each year to avoid always hitting that area of the pasture at the same point in its growth.
Regardless of where livestock start their grazing season, the researcher urged producers to give each paddock at least 75 days of active growth between grazing, if possible.
Records will be key, she added, not only to record when, how long, and by how many cattle each paddock was grazed, but also to track each paddock’s productivity year to year.
“I think one of the biggest steps that we’ve taken is taking that leap of faith and pushing the cattle harder,” she said. “This year, I’m not afraid to do it. When we initially started, I was very skeptical, very hesitant. I didn’t want to take that step… you just have to be flexible and be able to think ahead of what may go wrong and be prepared.”
This year, for example, dry conditions and a late turnout will shorten grazing at MBFI. Forewarned by lack of moisture and slow regrowth at the start of the year, Iwanchysko decided to turn cattle out on riparian areas, should the forage run out.
Her project will have to use that secondary option. Cattle were removed from the continuous pasture already by mid-August, while planned grazing systems held on for several weeks. Paddocks have also fallen to 65 days rest between grazing and 1-1/2-acre paddocks as forage supplies run out.
Iwanchysko says there are still tweaks to be made. She has yet to experiment with stock density and has more work to do tracking cattle weights.
Thornton urged producers considering adaptive grazing to start small and build, tailoring the program to their own farm.
“The people that you hear who are on a really management intensive grazing system or a planned grazing system, they didn’t start there,” she said.