Build a Grazing Plan to Balance Forage Supply, Livestock Demand
There is more to grazing than just turning cows out to pasture. The forage resource and the livestock grazing it are part of a much larger, more complex system and must be managed as such.
A grazing plan, according to specialist Jim Gerrish, offers producers an organized approach to managing the system of soil, plant, animal, and human resources available to the farm or ranch. Gerrish, who manages a grazing operation in the Pahsimeroi Valley of north central Idaho, has been involved in grazing practices, research, and consulting since 1980.
The reason for a grazing plan says Gerrish is because, "Grass does not grow at the same rate every day of the year, nor does animal consumption rate stay the same. If you don't have a plan for where you are going it is very hard to bring that supply and demand into balance."
Imbalance leads to inefficiency building into the rest of the system and unnecessary economical and emotional stresses for producers. To balance supply and demand grazing managers must use a variable stocking rate throughout the year (i.e. don't have the same number of animals on the place month after month).
"An increase in costs and decrease in income is very often the outcome of not having a grazing plan," says Gerrish.
The benefits of implementing a grazing plan include increasing the total number of stock days harvested per acre annually and improved grazing efficiency thanks to having animal demand matched to the available forage supply. In addition, Gerrish notes drought and destocking plans, both vital components of a grazing plan, helps manager proactively plan and be better equipped to deal with drought when it does finally occur.
"Most farmers and ranchers are well into the drought, before they figure out, 'Man, I've got to sell some cattle," says Gerrish. "If you have a plan you would already be reducing the stocking numbers before your neighbors even realize there is a drought coming."
While most producers may think they have a grazing plan, in Gerrish's experience for the majority it is merely a mental note. To implement a grazing plan properly, organization is essential. He recommends producers write things down and do their research ahead of time.
"The first thing I try to do is get an assessment of what the potential carrying capacity of the property is," says Gerrish.
To do this, Gerrish uses Web Soil Survey (WSS). WSS provides soil data and information produced by the National Cooperative Soil Survey and currently lists surveys for 95% of U.S. counties. Canadians should consult the Canadian Soil Information Service for soil data in their country. Soil surveys allow for potential productivity and carrying capacity to be calculated.
Along with soil surveys, historical weather and rainfall data for the area to be grazed should be reviewed. This information combined with the soil survey, will assist in determining what months of the year forage will be growing, when peaks and declines in production will occur, and when the chief dormant season is.
"We know that we are going to produce forage in a limited period of time, but we are going to try to stretch it over 12 months ideally," says Gerrish.
Figuring out carrying capacity for what the forage production is going to be allows grazing managers to understand when there will be abundance and deficits of feed.
Next, Gerrish says producers need to look at their stock policy or stock flow, defined as the class of animals and number of animals on the farm or ranch on a month-by-month basis. The goal is to fit the animal demand of the stock policy to what the forage production will be.
It is important to note all of these calculations are based on average conditions. To plan for the possibility of below-average conditions, a drought plan should be incorporated into the grazing plan.
"In a drought plan we are looking at probability of receiving precipitation and trigger dates," says Gerrish. "So if you have not received this percentage of the normal precipitation by this date you have to do something and that is usually reducing animal numbers."
Gerrish encourages grazing managers to incorporate flexibility into their stock policy by grazing different classes and/or species of livestock. The objective is to have the flexibility and ability to increase stocking numbers to capture available forage when it is on hand and liquidate or not even start an enterprise when forage is not available.
Grazing plans will differ across regions. In the West, a big part of the grazing plan becomes the drought management plan. In the East, however, Gerrish points out while you still need a drought contingency index, the percent of forage resources held in reserve need not be as great due to higher rainfall and a more forgiving landscape. In addition, Eastern producers can get away with less flexibility in their stock policy thanks to more market opportunities.
For those new to grazing planning, Gerrish gives the following advice: "Have a good understanding of what your land is capable of producing and when it is likely to be available."
Whether you have 30 acres and 2 milk cows, 16 sheep and 5 beefs you are finishing or are running cattle on half a million acres, Gerrish believes every farm and ranch should have a grazing plan in place.
"No operation is too small or too big," says Gerrish. "It makes life so much less complicated when you have a plan."
Authored by Jesse Bussard a agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.
Read more on Grazing planning strategies.
Soil data can be found via the U.S. Web Soil Survey (http://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/HomePage.htm) and the Canadian Soil Information Service (http://sis.agr.gc.ca/cansis/).
NOAA Climate Data Online for historical weather info: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/
Many NRCS and university grazing planning spreadsheets are available on the web. Contact your local NRCS grazing specialist or university extension forage specialist for more information.