Low-cost land improvement

Low-cost land improvement

Most graziers simply accept that animals tend to avoid some parts of their pasture and spend most of the time on others. Input suppliers advise chemicals to control weeds, fertilizer to boost grass production or seeding different forages. Albert Kuipers has a different approach. He suggests changing your pasture, by where, when and for how long you put your animals in each area.  

Kuipers is the Forage & Grazing Specialist with the Grey Wooded Forage Association and he’s been teaching grazing management for over 14 years. He’s taught hundreds, maybe thousands of people to manage grazing.

“Grazing is really simple,” he says. “It’s all about matching the amount of grazing and the right amount of rest to let the grass recover. Of course, figuring this out is a bit more challenging. It’s not based on the calendar. You just have to look at the forage.”

The key is to balancing animals and forage so the animals get enough nutrients to reach your performance targets, but not to allow them to chew off regrowth of a plant. That means planning to know where you’re going next and matching cattle numbers to the forage available. The concentration of animals has to be high enough to remove a fairly even amount of most of the plants in the pasture.

If you take off just a small portion of the grass, it recovers quickly because the plant doesn’t have to recover from a serious injury, Kuipers explains. If you take off a greater proportion of a plant, quite a large amount of the roots slough off. This means the plant has to regenerate roots before it can absorb the moisture and nutrients it needs, and it has to do this with less of a solar panel (the leaves) to power that growth.  

Kuipers has recently found research that supports his observations that grazing lightly is especially important early in the growing season. Taking less than 25% of the available forage in spring increased total forage production for the whole year by 60%. Taking 50% of that early growth cut the year’s production to 40% of its potential.

Matching productivity to the number of animals and the productivity of the forage as well as the size of the field is quite an art, but one well worth practising.

“Even when you get things wrong, you can learn a lot and sometimes change your grazing land for the better,” says Kuipers. “About 25 years ago, I came home from an intensive grazing school convinced that stock density was the key to making money from grass cattle. I put a lot of animals on small spaces for too long. I grazed my pasture into the ground. Everything that wasn’t eaten was trampled. I didn’t see a thistle on the place for the next five years. And, without seeding a pound, I had a huge crop of alsike clover. The grass and clover came out of that short-term overgrazing, but the thistles couldn’t.

“The downside to that was that I forgot the animal side of the equation and my heifers didn’t gain nearly what they should have.

Research at the University of Alberta has backed up Kuiper’s experience. You can get rid of Canada thistle by holding cattle just a bit longer in a paddock than you normally would. The scientists found that once cattle got over the prickliness of thistle they ate it quite readily and kept it out of pastures – and it does have quite good nutritional value.

Kuipers hates to call any plants weeds. “They’re just the plants that are adapted to surviving in the conditions you create,” he says. “Fields yellow with dandelion in spring aren’t really a problem, they’re a symptom of overgrazing by continuous grazing in big pastures. Dandelions don’t weaken the grass or steal water from it. They have deep taproots that allow them to access moisture and nutrients below the reach of shallow roots of overgrazed grasses. And, they’re nutritious for cattle and for bees, especially bumblebees.”

If you want to boost forage production in an area of pasture, Kuipers advises keeping cattle in an area by feeding a bale there, or a waterer, or salt block, even running a fence around the area. The nutrients in urine, manure and trampling will produce lush forage.

“The dandelions will grow too,” he says. “But, they’re not a problem in lush grass, those big leaves are a tasty part of the salad for the cattle. I like to see a whole cocktail of plant species in a pasture. Diversity in a perennial pasture rebuilds the soil and productivity. Not only that, I believe every plant species accesses different soil nutrients, so that when animals eat a diversity of plants they get a range of nutrients and minerals, so they’re healthier.”

To avoid undesirable changes to plant species, Kuipers advises varying the time of year you use each pasture. Just as a good crop rotation keeps most weeds from becoming a problem, changing conditions prevents undesirable plants from becoming an issue. He also recommends changing the intensity of the grazing or the length of time the animals are on each pasture. But, no matter how hard you graze a pasture, it’s crucial to give it enough rest. The length of time it takes for a pasture to recover depends on a lot of things, weather, time of year, fertility, but mostly on the amount of forage removed. Coming back to a pasture too soon helps undesirable plants establish, says Kuipers.

If you have surface water, whether a creek or a seep, the Cows and Fish program has likely already shown you how fencing it off or even just providing a waterer keeps cattle from wading into the water or hanging around the banks. Without the cattle breaking down the banks and eating willows or whatever vegetation grows near the water, there can be dramatic changes. Creeks become smaller and deeper, with cooler water that’s better habitat for fish. Vegetation can grow thick and become ideal habitat for birds and other wildlife. Given lots of rest, saline areas can become productive pastures. Grazing foxtail barley hard early in the year, before it heads, then allowing lots of rest can eliminate it entirely in a few years.

Kuipers is convinced anyone can learn to manage grazing – whether you call it intensive, rotational, or even precision grazing, but he says it’s easier for people who know little about pastures or the grazing animals. “Bad habits are harder to escape than learning from scratch,” he says. “We always want to revert to the old ways. But if you watch, the land will teach you, and the cattle will teach you.”

by Helen McMeanamin