CeWN-MR-1-Grazingby Katie Navarra
Grazing livestock have the potential to maximize or exceed their daily intake requirements ultimately leading to increased production than if fed stored forages.
“Well-managed pastures are generally higher in quality than any other forage,” Karen Hoffman, Resource Conversationalist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, said. Livestock allowed to graze consume the plant when it is in the vegetative stage of growth before it sends out a seed head.
“The plant will be lower in fiber, which means it is more easily digested by the animal, with the help of bacteria in the rumen of the animals that have one,” she added. Pastures also tend to be higher in protein and energy than other forages due to the stage of plant growth. Furthermore, grazing animals are outside and able to absorb natural vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin D.
Why graze?
Grazing can allow the farmer to reduce the cost of feeding animals. “They (the animals) do the work of harvesting, it’s high quality, and generally doesn’t need to be supplemented with expensive feeds,” Hoffman said.
High-producing dairy animals are an exception. “It is recommended that some supplemental energy be fed as pasture can’t meet their energy needs alone,” she added.
Providing pastures for grazing has the potential to reduce feed costs, but “it all depends,” said Mick Bessire with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties, “to make grazing as profitable as possible you have to keep costs under control and have a process of evaluation.”
Management and operating practices play an important role to making grazing a more efficient and more profitable endeavor. “I have seen farms with 100 cows and 500 acres that can’t make it; however, I have seen farms with 150 cows and 250 acres do very well,” he said.
How much pasture do I need?
Successful grazing requires daily monitoring of the animal’s health, body condition score, fluids intake and productivity.
“(Farmers) need to be particularly mindful of/familiar with the animal’s body condition score,” Bessire explained. The animal’s health should be monitored on a daily basis. The pastures should also be checked daily for the amount of forage available to ensure the animals have enough to eat.
The animal’s age and stage of development will require different amounts of forage. “Yearlings or those in lactation take more forage than a dry cow,” he said. For example, a dry cow requires 2.5 percent of its body weight in forage whereas a yearling needs 3 percent and lactating animals need 3.5 percent.
The soil type and the type of forage available play a critical role in determining how many animals a pasture can support. “Up to 30-40 percent clover is the best option,” he said, “clover supports more animals than straight grass and it provides nitrogen fixation to help fertilize the soil.”
In general, the ratio of animals to pasture land is determined using animal units. Each animal unit is equal to 1,000 pounds of body weight. Pastures with decent soil and good forage coverage should be able to support one animal unit per acre. Bessire said, “horses eat an awful lot and are actually equivalent to 2 1/4 animal units meaning it takes 2 1/2 acres for one horse.”
Pasture health critical
A pasture’s nutritional value is directly related to its soil type, pH and fertility.
Soil types are measured on a scale of 1 to 8. “A type 1 soil is capable of producing 5 to 6 tons of dry matter per acre,” Bessire explained, “a type 3 is only able to produce between 3 to 3.5 tons of dry matter per acre.”
A Soil Survey Handbook is available and includes charts by county that indicate the tonnage of dry matter the soil will likely produce under optimum conditions. “If the soil is good and at optimum fertility and pH that is a good start,” he said, “but some sort of harvest is needed (i.e. hay) is the only sure way to measure.”
The pasture’s viability is also based on how fertile the soil is and its ability to absorb nutrients. Soil that has been neglected may be short on micronutrients. “(You) need to look at the micronutrients as part of the tool kit these days in convention and organic agriculture because we have not been putting these back into the soil and it is out of balance,” he added.
Soil pH is an important part of the pasture’s ability to produce high-quality forage. “This part of the world (Columbia and Greene County, NY) is naturally acidic,” he said. Grasses and legumes do well with a pH of 6.2-6.5. If pH is too low or too high prevents plants from picking up other nutrients in the soil. Soil samples can be taken to local Cooperative Extensions for testing.
“Know your soil and what’s in it and amend it,” he emphasized. A plant that is not receiving adequate nutrients will pass the lack of nutrition onto the animal leading to poor nutritional health for the animal or the need to supplement with grain or hay to keep the animal well fed.
Getting started with grazing
Incorporating grazing into the feeding routine requires planning and preparation. Infrastructure and acreage are important considerations.
Newly converted lands or leased lands may require fencing and a water source. “If you are leasing land make the agreement for a long enough period of time to make it worth the infrastructure investment,” Bassire said.
Tax breaks and other incentives are available to land owners who consider leasing property to farms. “There is a lot of land that is under-utilized, especially in New York,” Bessire said, “I get calls every day from people looking to lease out under-utilized land.” Funding is available through the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the USDA and NRCS.
Ultimately, neighbor relations is key. Liability and infrastructure can be stumbling blocks to connecting landowners with livestock owners, but developing solid relationships with neighbors go a long way in smoothing this over.
Once pastures are established, create a grazing management plan.
“Rotational grazing can produce almost double the amount compared to continuous grazing,” Bassire explained. In a rotational system the animals are allowed to graze 1-3 days and are then moved to another pasture. The vegetation is given enough time to rebound and regrow. The length of the rest period varies based on the season. In the spring it averages two weeks, but can be as many as four to six during the middle of the summer.
In conventional grazing, the livestock prefer the young tender grass rather than taller grasses. An overgrazed root system contracts and cannot take up nutrients to sustain growth. The growth slows down and turns into fodder.
“Determine how many acres are needed, and how often to rotate the animals through the pastures/paddocks,” Hoffman concluded, “It’s a balance between forage supply and forage demand and making sure there’s enough pasture for the amount of time they are in the paddock.”