Farm News, IA 02-28-07 Intensive grazing seen as viable option


Farm News, IA


Intensive grazing seen as viable option

By Kristin Danley-Greiner, Farm News staff


— The hay market has seen prices rise in recent times, with

Iowa’s winter prices slightly higher than last year. Unfortunately, feed prices have become a problem for some operations, particularly those that don’t raise most of their own feed, and intensive grazing may be the solution.

Beth Doran, beef specialist with Iowa State University Extension based out of Orange City

, said with generally high grain prices, she anticipates more acres planting to corn this spring, which offers the option of intensive grazing to cattle producers.

“Intensive grazing is becoming more common with producers who want to maximize total beef production on a given number of acres. It usually does not produce the largest individual weaning weights,”î she said.

“For those producers who want to maintain the same number of cattle, several things could occur. More producers may turn to intensive grazing, while others may turn to supplementation with co-product feeds to stretch pasture carrying capacities,î” Doran continued. “This supplementation may occur on pasture or in drylot for a short period of time. A few producers might resort to drylotting cows year-round, although this is not without challenges.î”

However, with managed intensive grazing, there is an increase in the level of management, Doran said.

“It is not only a skill, but an art to conduct intensive grazing. You are trying to optimize pasture productivity for the whole season. So, the level of stewardship is elevated.”î

Those considering intensive grazing should be aware of several factors. Doran said it’s important to match the number of animals to the carrying capacity of the pasture on a weekly basis.

“Weather and season will play a key role,î” she said. “In the spring, pasture carrying capacity usually exceeds the number of animals. Consequently, some producers will mechanically harvest part of the forage before it becomes too mature.

“As the summer months come into play, pasture carrying capacity is reduced.

Animals will be rotated more frequently from paddock to paddock,î” Doran

continued. “Having the correct number and size of paddocks is critical. At a minimum, it takes 21 days for a plant to re-grow and that is if growing conditions are ideal.î”

The option of intensive grazing isn’t limited to cattle, however, and is being considered by other livestock producers, too. But, the considerations and factors are the same.

Dan Morrical, ISU Extension sheep specialist

, said grazing lands are becoming more costly due to competition from corn acres.

“Intensive grazing requires investment in some sort of fencing and watering systems. There are cost share grants available from NRCS to assist with water or fence development,î” he said.

But, improved grazing management can result in a 50 percent increase in pasture productivity, Morrical said.

’’I would suggest establishing a 4- to 6-paddock rotational grazing system as the first step. One or two of these paddocks should be fenced in areas that could be hayed if excess forage accumulates,î Morrical said. ’’The second step would be soil testing and making appropriate nutrient inputs to increase production. My rule of thumb is that every 40 pounds of applied nitrogen increases forage yield by one-half ton of dry matter.

’’Currently, $25 would cover the fertilizer and spreading costs, but generate feed that only costs $50 per ton. That is one of the cheapest feeds available for ruminant producers,î he said. ’’Combining improved fertility and rotational grazing could lead to a 50 to 100 percent increase in production over two to three years.

Establishing a strong productive sward takes two to three years after pasture management improvements are initiated.î

Steve Barnhart, ISU Extension forages specialist

, said that this type of a management system can be overwhelming, what with the considerations for livestock, forages, paddock numbers, the rotation system, fencing and water resources all coming into play. Some worried about the right combination of these factors sometimes never give it a shot

’’Unfortunately, there is no ‘recipe’ that fits all,î Barnhart said. ’’The best guidance is to start slowly, expect variability in weather and forage growth, that flexibility will need to be built into every aspect of an effective grazing system and that there is as much ‘art’ as there is ‘science’ required to successfully manage a grazing system.î

Barnhart suggests that producers consider the following factors:

Pasture management:

· If able, start your rotation grazing in the late summer, when the grass is less likely to get away from you, and regrowth rates are more predictable. Learn when it is less variable.

· Graze the forage that you currently have. Surprisingly, within a short period of better ’’rotation and restî management, you will see more forage species and fewer weeds than you had previously. ’’New pastures take time to fully establish.

See what you can accomplish with improved grazing management before setting out to establish a new, permanent pasture.

· Maintain enough pasture acres for use as extra paddocks to use during dry weather, and as a source of stockpiled food. Don’t forget forage acres needed to harvest winter feed.

· If you currently have more spring forage than you can efficiently handle with your existing herd, delay nitrogen applications on grass-based pastures. Split apply some of your annual N in mid- to late spring and consider another portion for late summer.

· Work toward achieving a 50-50 mix of grasses (brome, orchard, rye, quack, bluegrass) and legumes (red clover, white clover, alfalfa).

Herd management:

· Do some simple supply/demand calculations to first determine appropriate animal numbers for existing pastureland. Start conservatively. Within a few years, with experience and good management, you should be able to increase animal numbers 15 to 25 percent

—don’t expect to double animal numbers.

· Be a good cow manager; don’t forget everything you’ve learned about livestock management to become a grazier.

Equipment and capital expenditures:

· Don’t build permanent fences right away. Maintain flexibility in paddock number and size. Most new rotation graziers soon see how minor changes will improve their system.

· Don’t worry about putting in a watering system right away.

· Avoid having to do fencing in the spring.

· Buy very little equipment, but buy some equipment.