Achieving Optimum Pasture Results
It is at the beginning of the pasture season that you can take the steps to optimize pasture performance on your farm. Pasture is the lowest cost feed source available, and the opportunity for improved production is significant on most farms. A well-managed pasture will be very competitive with any other crop use that you might consider for that land base if the forage and livestock are both well managed with a good rotational system.
The key to maximize both forage and livestock production is to manage the forage for optimum forage growth and optimum bite size for the animals grazing.
To get optimum growth from the forage plants they need to be in a rapid growth state for as much of the growing season as possible. Maintaining a grazing forage height between 10 cm (4 inches) and 30 cm (12 inches) will allow the plants to maintain good growth and capture all the available sunlight to drive photosynthesis. This plant height will maintain a substantial root system that will be able to gather water and nutrients from the soil throughout the summer and minimize a summer dormancy period should hot dry weather occur. To maintain this level of forage growth the pasture manager needs to move livestock to fresh grass every couple of days. If too much pasture is offered at a time, then selective grazing will take place and the less desirable plants will not be grazed, become mature and over a number of years, dominate the pasture.
After a plant is grazed it needs time to rest and re-grow, this is the key point of pasture management -- rest and recovery.
Maximizing bite size is the key to good animal productivity. Cattle bite at a rather constant rate and for about 8 hours each day. As the pasture manager you have control of the bite size. Providing pasture that is the optimum size for the animal to bite (10-30 cm) is the first big step to maximize intake. The second step is to have fresh forage on offer at all times. Livestock are not going to eat forage that has been laid on or fouled with manure or urine. The longer the animals are in a given paddock, the greater the percentage of forage in that paddock that is going to be unpalatable because of what has been done to it, thus the importance of frequent moves to fresh pasture.
Fencing is the tool that allows you to manage your livestock to provide re-growth time for the grass and manage the quality and quantity of forage available for your livestock. Perimeter fences need to be substantial enough to keep your animals where they belong and to give you piece of mind to sleep at night.
Fences to sub-divide the pasture into paddocks do not need to be elaborate; single or double wire electric fence works very effectively. If there is need for a larger or smaller grazing area, these fences can be easily repositioned.
Animals that have adequate quantities of quality forage available will not place nearly the challenge on fences that hungry animals will. Cattle are creatures of habit and if they know that you are going to provide fresh grass later today or tomorrow, they will patiently wait the job of the pasture manager is to not challenge their patience!
Moving livestock to fresh pasture every 1-2 days will optimize the quality and quantity of forage available for your livestock. This frequency of moves will minimize the animals opportunity to take a second bite from the plants and will help to prevent over grazing which greatly diminishes plant growth. It is important to have enough paddocks that your livestock do not return to a paddock until the plants have fully recovered from the grazing. This depends on growing conditions but generally takes about 20 days in May and early June and about 30-45 + days in July and August.
Having enough paddocks is the key to a good grazing operation with 10 to 12 being the minimum required to have a good system. Ideally there will be about 30 paddocks for each group of livestock that you are managing. Experience has shown that those producers who have this number of paddocks are the most satisfied with their systems and consistently achieve excellent results.
With attention to detail, you will have animals consuming large quantities of high quality forage to attain optimum growth throughout the growing season. These steps will give you a very successful profitable grazing system.
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