Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry
“Planning allows the producer to be proactive in a situation as opposed to reactive,” explains Andrea Hanson, livestock extension specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. “Producers have experienced two years of dry conditions in some parts of the province and moisture for hay fields and pastures this year has been less than adequate so feed stocks and pastures are stressed.”
Hanson says that planning ensures all resources are optimized and helps to maintain control. “Decisions are set to be made quickly and thoughtfully as ‘key trigger dates’ arrive. Grazers in the drier areas know they are in the middle of the cumulative effects of the dry conditions.”
“Producers need to adjust management to allow forages to build back productivity even if this year’s moisture is higher than the past couple of years. Returning subsoil moisture, plant’s root systems, and plant vigor takes time.”
“Most importantly, the plan needs to be documented,” explains Hanson. “As much as we think we will remember all the details of a plan, writing it down will ensure the writer and others understand where the plan is headed. It also helps encourage prompt timely actions for best outcomes.”
“A number of plan templates are available that vary in detail. It is up to the producer as to how technical they want to get and whom they want to involve. Involving the family creates opportunities for creative ideas with team buy-in, using problem solving solutions. The important point is to ensure something gets documented so that if stresses happen, there is a fall back action and support to keep the arrow pointed at the goal.”
Goals and objectives
She says that these are just some of the questions to consider when setting the plans goals and objectives:
- How important is your forage to your operation?
- How many months do you expect or need the cows to graze?
- Do the cows work for you – they do the harvesting – or do you work for the cows?
- Do you know the cost per acre for your gazing system?
- What is your net return?
Resource inventory and evaluation
According to Hanson, developing a resource inventory and evaluation of the pastures and feeding systems are the next steps.
“Know how many acres of all forages are there to work with and whether they could be used differently. Ask yourself if you looking to change your forage system by adding, or deleting.”
“Consider talking to producers who have developed grazing plans different than your own, who are doing something you would like to try. As well, now is the time to become a member of your local forage or research association. They are a wealth of information with members and producers who have been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”
Hanson adds to know how many head graze those acres and the forage requirements to ensure an adequate supply. “If you do not have an adequate forage supply, revisit your goals and objectives or resource inventory. Then, decide where you are going to find additional acres to increase forage supply. If you have some acres that are not grazed effectively, could that change with a few alterations?”
Cost benefit and risk assessment
The next planning step considers the cost-benefit and risk assessment of grazing. Says Hanson, “Canola and some of the other cash crops likely have a higher cost-benefit payout in the short-term. However, in the long-term, what is the health and sustainability of your soil?”
“In almost all cases, a few years of well managed grazing will improve the land for years to come. Legumes and grass forage stands have shown positive soil improvements with higher resulting grain crop production for 10 years after being taken out of forage.”
Hanson adds that implementation of the grazing plan comes next, followed closely by monitoring.
“Turning the cattle into the pasture in mid-May, checking they have water and salt and minerals throughout the summer months and pulling them at the end of August is not considered monitoring the forages effectively. While mob grazing is not a system every producer wants to consider, closer monitoring, grouping herds, and moving of the cattle will begin to change the forage species present and has the potential to increase production over time.”
Continual change is important as the pasture conditions change, Hanson explains. “The plan should be updated every time it rains, does not rain or when actions are taken. Developing that plan today should use close to last year’s forage yields as a starting point.”
She uses an example, an adequate amount of precipitation falling between April and June. “Pasture growth is abundant and plants are invigorated. Then, the updated plan for July could allow for additional animals, or even more profitable may be to graze longer so winter feeding is reduced.”
“On the other hand, if the rains don’t arrive by key dates written out in your plan, start culling steps to mitigate losses of grazing days. This backup plan with a culling procedure will be best in the long term and make the decision process easier when stresses are high.”
Hanson adds that grazing management is more than noting the date the cattle are turned into the pasture and the date they leave. “It is about observing your livestock, forages and other resources and making the best decisions for all involved.”
“A vigorous healthy pasture will bounce back quickly with compensatory growth when rains come. An overgrazed pasture, at best will improve slowly in the following year and only then with conservative grazing management.”
To connect with the Alberta Ag-Info Centre:
Hours: 8:15 am to 4:30 pm (open Monday to Friday, closed statutory holidays)
Toll free: 310-FARM (3276)