The Virginia Forage and Grassland Council held its annual series of winter meetings at four locations: Blackstone, Wytheville, Weyers Cave, and Brandy Station. The Wytheville event was even more well-attended than it had been in previous years, with over 200 people from Lebanon to Floyd present to learn about strategies for improving soil health.
The featured speakers included Joshua Dukart, a holistic management consultant from North Dakota, and Dr. Ed Rayburn, forage agronomist from West Virginia University. In addition, each meeting had presentations from an area producer who spoke about how his use of managed grazing enhanced soil health on his farm. Virginia Tech students also spoke about a summer tour they took to study different kinds of grazing land ecosystems and practices throughout Southern and Midwestern states.
Knowing about pasture ecology, Dr. Rayburn suggested, will help you develop an effective grazing strategy. This means knowing how plants grow and store energy — and how the different plants in your pasture respond to grazing — but also other factors sometimes overlooked, like how the growth of a plant species is affected by soil biology.
Grazing management can be divided, according to Dr. Rayburn, into two main and independent factors: timing and intensity.
Timing of grazing (or length of recovery period) should be determined by the plant’s growth cycle and the time of the year. Intensity of grazing should be in balance with the residual leaf area required by plants for recovery.
Optimal pasture yield is achieved when plants are allowed to grow until they have the highest energy reserves. Optimal intensity of grazing will remove much of the forage but still leave enough behind for rapid growth. What that means in terms of the height of the remaining plant depends on what’s being grazed.
For example, an orchardgrass-clover mix should be grown to a 10-inch height and then grazed to a two- or three-inch height. If clover becomes too competitive, graze to a four-inch height.
Joshua Dukart came all the way from North Dakota to speak to Virginia graziers about soil health and how to devise a grazing strategy.
To build your soil, consider a number of factors, starting with diversity and “armor,” as Dukart put it.
Armor is having residue and/or cover on your soils. Armor will help both keep soil temperatures cool, allowing for better moisture efficiency in warmer months, and provide the conditions for maximum productivity.
Dukart gave the example of a hot, dry summer in which a monoculture oilseed radish crop failed due to high temperatures and low moisture. But in the same year in an adjacent field the same species thrived when planted in a seven-species mix. The other species, as it turned out, gave the cover and armor for the oilseed radish to thrive.
Continual presence of live roots is also important to building soils, Dukart said, as is appropriate disturbance.
“Is mowing the same as grazing?” he asked. “What do animals leave behind? Manure. Urine. Saliva. Hair. Biology. You don’t get any of that with a machine.”
Having an adequate recovery time is also critical to building soil health. But consider that recovery means more than just the recovery of the dominant species in your sward. It could mean secondary species, or the recovery of soil surface and soil biology.
Dukart suggested experimenting on a small scale with different recovery times to see how your pastures come back differently over different time scales.
Building soils is like building muscle, Dukart said. You want to work intensely, recover completely, and repeat.
Dukart also spoke about grazing. Because every farm is unique, he said, every operation requires an individualized grazing strategy. What’s more, devising a grazing plan requires both science — an understanding of past research — and art — an understanding of the conditions of your situation.
Referring to research when designing a grazing system is useful, but don’t rely on such findings to the exclusion of your own good sense. Remember that research comes from a certain set of conditions which might not be applicable to your situation.
When developing a grazing plan, Dukart suggested going beyond the idea of rotational grazing and devising a strategy which is both purposeful and complete. To compose such a plan, Dukart suggested considering three factors.
First, environmental regeneration. Purposeful grazing, Dukart suggested, will identify what aspects of the land need regenerating and target that factor in its design. For example, does the soil need more carbon, or more nitrogen, to get its carbon-nitrogen ration in ideal balance?
Second, economic viability. Grazing with a purpose will help you ensure that your operation is profitable. This means setting benchmarks, rather than an abstract goal with the hope that in the end the numbers work out and you come out ahead. Do you measure your herd to see that it is performing as you require?
Finally, social responsibility and quality of life. Has managed grazing taken over your life? Or are you using it as a tool to improve the quality of your life, to allow you to spend time as you wish?
In essence, Dukart suggests approaching grazing from this purposeful standpoint to make sure you understand why you are practicing managed grazing in the first place.