Develop a grazing strategy
In recognition of their excellent forage production and management skills, Jerry and Barb Braun of New Effington, S.D., received the Edmunds and McPherson County Natural Resources Conservation Service 2011 Excellence in Range Management Award.
“One of the best things I did was set up a rotational grazing system,” Jerry says. “We have about 23 different paddocks ranging in size from 20 to 160 acres, depending on paddock location and available water. Each season we graze each paddock three times. That allows grass to rest and regrow, improving forage quality.”
Timing the first grazing period so grazing doesn’t begin until grasses are 4 inches high is one of Jerry’s forage quality strategies. “If the grass is less than 4 inches, grazing takes away from the forage leaf and stifles plant growth. That, in turn, affects root development,” he says. “I use a formula every year to determine how much grass I expect to produce to help calculate how many days cattle graze each paddock.”
• Rotational grazing is key to conservation and profit on South Dakota ranch.
• They graze paddocks three times each season.
• They don’t open paddocks until grass is at least 4 inches tall.
Jerry maintains between four and five cattle herds grouped according to age. Replacements and yearlings are sorted into a group. Most second-calf cows form a second group. Cows between the ages of 3 and 4 make up an additional herd. Cows between 6 and 11 are in the fourth herd.
“Keeping younger animals together eliminates dominance issues you see with older cows,” Jerry says. “It’s easier for animals to obtain a uniform amount of feed since older cows can’t push younger ones away. Depending on pasture conditions, I keep the groups separated that way throughout the year.”
When he began establishing his grazing system, Jerry used hot wire to form paddocks. He has since set up a cross-fencing system that’s been more satisfactory.
“When it was wet, it was difficult to work with electric fence around creek areas,” Jerry says. “I took advantage of Natural Resources Conservation Service programs to help purchase fencing materials.
The biggest challenge with paddocks is having available water. I have a rural water system available on most of my paddocks. Make sure water sources are adequate for dry periods. Clean water is so important. I’ve seen cows walk away from standing water in a dugout to drink clean water from a tank.”
Depending on forage quality and moisture availability, Jerry keeps cattle on each paddock between 55 and 58 days. If it’s dry, he might graze a paddock a couple of extra days to stretch out his forage supply.
“I’ve found you can overgraze a paddock a couple of times during the season much more successfully than if you overgraze an area all year,” Jerry says. “If it’s really dry, I use hay and a protein supplement in addition to grazing.”
Recordkeeping is also an essential part of Jerry’s plan. A 3-foot-square patch in each paddock allows him to monitor how much grass that paddock produced and closely estimate how much was removed through grazing.
“I can analyze the effects my grazing plan had on the paddock and see which grasses are helping me reach my grazing goals,” he says. “Over a period of time, I can see which grasses thrive under my grazing plan.”
For anyone considering rotational grazing, Jerry recommends starting slowly, beginning with an assessment of available forage.
“Determine how much forage you have available and use resources such as NRCS to decide how many cattle your forage can support,” Jerry says. “It takes time to attend events like range management schools, but what you learn more than makes up for it. Keep learning and develop the plan most suited to your operation.
“As you develop your strategy, keep in mind that the land you’re using will be used by someone else when you’re done with it,” Jerry adds. “Leave it in better condition than you found it. If I accomplish that, I’ve achieved my main goal.”
Sorensen writes from Yankton, S.D.
This article published in the October, 2012 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.