Knowing exactly what you can expect out of a pasture can put producers on better footing when making hard management choices during drought, producers and grazing experts say.
If the season continues as it has been so far, despite May rains across the Prairies, there will be hard decisions in plenty.
Most land in Manitoba saw anywhere from 20 to 78 millimetres in May (although very little had fallen in the Interlake), much needed in a province that had counted well under half of normal moisture over the winter and spring — but it was followed up by frost concerns that forage experts warned would likely set back a hay crop that was already sparking alarm. Far more rain will also have to fall before concerns over surface water are quenched, producers looking at low or dried dugouts also say.
Why it matters: Decisions in drought conditions are made on slim margins, but having a better idea of what you’re working with in the pasture may help.
Pasture records can be critical to making informed choices in a year with drought conditions, producers were told earlier this year.
A detailed inventory of forage and future forage available is “basically like counting bales in your bale yard,” Jeremy Brown, an agrologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada in Saskatchewan, said.
Brown spoke alongside Manitoba producer and former Nuffield Scholar Ryan Boyd and Albertan Steve Kenyon, who runs a custom grazing business, during a spring webinar hosted by the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC).
The three discussed how they track pasture use on their operations, how they use records to establish the economic output of their grazing land and manage landscape goals.
Boyd said his farm’s drought plan relies on knowing what grass is available at all times. With those factors, they’ll know months out if there is enough feed for the winter, or if they’ll need to sell stock or buy feed.
“You need to know how much forage you have, how much feed you have,” he said.
Boyd uses an area-calculating app to determine the size of the parcel being grazed and tracks rainfall, pasture inventory, pasture productivity, biological indicators and animal performance. Pasture productivity is measured in animal unit days per acre.
Rainfall isn’t just what fell, he said, but what soaked in.
Boyd’s animal performance records include weight gain on yearlings, which he can use at the end of the year to figure out gain per acre and calculate gross margins, he said. An animal’s body condition and conception rate are also tracked, and adjustments are made accordingly.
Biological indicators include landscape function, something Boyd said he’s working to maximize — for instance, whether plant density is increasing. Boyd said they have benchmarked soil tests on every field and quarter section and monitor the sites for changes in organic matter, pH, nutrient content and other measures.
“You can get carried away looking at the numbers on the spreadsheet,” he said. “The results on the spreadsheet have to reconcile in the field. Are we accomplishing the landscape goals? The animal goals? All of that has to come together to work as a whole.”
On Kenyon’s farm, a spreadsheet grazing chart tracks the use of each paddock. Kenyon inputs the number of animals in the paddock, multiplied by an estimated animal-day value — how much each unit (e.g. cow-calf pair) will eat daily. By tracking how many days cattle stay in each paddock, he can then calculate how much forage is removed each day and get yearly totals of how much fodder is removed from each paddock.
As a custom grazer, Kenyon uses this information to calculate the revenue each paddock generates — or if land is losing him money.
Kenyon said he provides free copies of his paper and electronic grazing charts on his website, greenerpasturesranching.com.
Brown, meanwhile, said he didn’t feel elaborate records are all important.
“You need to just do whatever you have time for and (what) sort of suits your goals and abilities,” he said. “What is really valuable is planning things out and then monitoring your pastures, replanning and keeping track of what you’re actually doing.”
There’s a huge spectrum of possible pasture record-keeping, Birtle-area producer and Manitoba Beef Producers president Tyler Fulton told the Co-operator May 27.
Fulton said he’s been using a similar record-keeping system for about 10 years.
“It just brings greater resilience to the operation because you have greater confidence that you can manage certain weather events,” he said.
Fulton said the app PastureMap went a long way toward developing a record-keeping system.
“It’s really simple to use, and it’s really effective,” he said.
However, as drought conditions persist across Manitoba, pasture and herd records may need to inform difficult decisions.
Fulton said they’ve sold half of what they’d planned to keep for replacement heifers and have set a deadline of mid-June to decide if they’ll keep the rest, based on what rainfall they get. A decade of data has helped set that boundary.
May rain has bought them a couple of weeks, but the potholes, ravines and dugouts they rely on for water are depleted or empty, he said.
“What that has already forced us to do is abandon our multi-paddock system because there’s simply no water for them in the paddocks we had previously used,” Fulton said. “It throws a huge wrench, you know, into that management.”
The Beef Cattle Research Council provides a calculator to determine stocking rates, Brown also said. Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development also provides a guide.
The guides have limitations, Brown noted, but added that, in his experience “they’re actually pretty good,” although conservative.
He said he’s worked with many ranchers to calculate stocking rates and found most were grazing 20 to 50 per cent over the recommended rate.