Cattle producers looking for bird-friendly grazing need to look past the usual metrics like pounds per acre, soil carbon and forage yield.
But just what the right system is will depend a lot on the variables of each operation.
“We shy away from recommending a specific type,” Carol Graham, habitat conservation specialist with the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation said. “There’s (too) many variabilities within a pasture system to really be able to be specific.”
The Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation delivers SARPAL (Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands) programming in collaboration with the Manitoba Beef Producers.
Producers interested in SARPAL, however, may be looking for guidance. The choice of grazing system drew questions more than once during a recent SARPAL informational meeting in Hartney, Oct. 10, with producers posing questions on stock density or grazing systems to avoid.
Graham had no blanket suggestion for those farmers, although program providers have noted benefit in twice-over grazing and its periods of rest.
“It gives us the ability to manage the diversity that’s in native prairies,” Graham said.
That means there will be cool-season plants that need a disturbance while they’re growing, but later another warm-season plant will also need a similar jolt. By dividing the grazing into two passes, both plants get what they need and the pasture as a whole gets a rest, which serves to build its overall productivity, she said.
SARPAL providers and partners, including the Manitoba Beef Producers, have generally been friendly towards the idea of rotational grazing, and not only in the context of SARPAL.
Rotational and, perhaps increasingly, high stock density rotational grazing are repeat topics among Manitoba’s grazing experts. Both grazing clubs and MBFI, the beef- and forage-oriented applied research farm north of Brandon, have held workshops and ran experiments on the subject. The concept is central for producers arguing for beef’s role in carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture.
Where high intensity systems have won advocates, those champions pitch them strongly. They have been characterized in those circles as an unmitigated win-win, with more beef taken off the same land base, more forage, more biodiversity and more soil microbiology among the benefits.
For Manitoba farmers interested in SARPAL, however, high intensity may not be welcome, even if more relaxed rotational grazing is.
Nests may be trampled if stock density is too high, warned Christian Artuso, Manitoba program manager with Bird Studies Canada. Additionally, SARPAL program providers warn that higher intensity systems may not provide the ideal length of grass for some species.
Different species prefer different heights of grass, Artuso said.
At the same time, he said, more intensity might have a place if a pasture needs to be improved.
“There are scenarios where it fits and it could be a benefit… long term, we’re not quite sure if that’s the ideal, because we are looking for structure,” Graham said. “We are looking for exactly what a native Prairie grassland would look like throughout the year, and sometimes those grazing strategies don’t provide that structure at certain times when it’s critical.”
The Manitoba Beef Producers and general manager Brian Lemon, however, say it may be a matter of planning.
“Arguably, the strategy around that intensive grazing is to graze hard and then rest and to let it come back,” he said. “It’s about managing and doing that hard grazing on certain paddocks during a certain time of year while the other ones, you actually remove the pressure from the other ones and actually allow the birds in the other ones.”
Lemon pointed to one SARPAL member who, this year, put in an additional paddock of early-season varieties in order to house his herd away from his normal pasture and the birds using it as habitat during the spring.