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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What recommendations do you have for forage diversity in a grass-finished beef operation?

Answer: Forage diversity is key to productive pastures from a soil perspective as well as from an animal productivity perspective. Select forages that are high in sugar content, including perennial grasses and legumes and annual forages such as sorghum-sudan and annual ryegrass. Brassicas and field peas are an excellent addition and are high in energy. Provide dry hay with brassicas and succulent pastures to give enough fiber to prevent acidosis and to increase rumen function. Select forages with a relative feed value of 150 and with low NDF (less than 45%). Forages that are vegetative, and not mature, have highest energy with lowest fiber. A good rule of thumb is to graze grasses before they get to the boot stage (prior to seed head emergence).

Consider developing a grazing plan to help partition the forage resource adequately to animal needs. A grazing system is just an organized, planned way of using the pasture resource to ensure that the animals receive the right amount of high quality forage while maintaining the productivity and vigor of the pasture and soil. A grazing system should result in the highest forage production and use per acre, have variable stocking rates based on the pasture plants’ need for recovery, provide an even distribution of manure, control weeds through grazing or trampling, and provide more grazing options while reducing the need for mechanically harvested forages for most of the year.

The best way to ensure this is to develop a grazing plan and schedule that rotates animals from paddock to paddock and allows adequate time for plant recovery. Consider the following principles in planning a grazing system:

• Managing recovery and grazing periods
• Using animal impact to benefit the pasture and soil
• Setting up the right size and number of paddocks
• Lengthening the grazing season for more time on pasture

Recovery period is all about plant regrowth and is fundamental to developing a grazing schedule. It is important to plan for increasing recovery time when grass growth slows down. Grazing period is the length of time animals are exposed to a paddock and is important in maintaining post-grazing residual. Be sure to allow adequate stubble height and enough leaf area for plant regrowth or you’ll slow the process down. Recovery periods should be from 15 to 20 days in the spring, from 30 to 60 days in the summer, and 20 to 30 days in the fall, depending on climate, plant species, and rainfall. Some things you can do to help you manage recovery and grazing periods are:

• Graze early-spring pasture to remove top growth and allow grasses to tiller and get more dense
• Machine-harvest excess early-spring growth to capture dry matter and allow grass to regrow for the next grazing cycle
• Follow high producing cows with dry cows, but make sure they don’t stay in the paddock too long
• Provide supplemental pastures when pasture growth is slow and decrease grazing period when growth is rapid, leaving some grass behind
• Reduce stocking rate by selling young stock or culling as needed; do not allow too many animals to degrade forage and soil resources
• Feed stored forages when necessary to protect resources, such as during drought
• Quicker paddock moves give animals fresh un-fouled (manured) ground, meaning better intake

The next principle to consider is paddock size and number. How big should they be, and how many should you have to ensure animals get enough dry matter intake and the forage base stays healthy? This is likely the most important, most fundamental question a grazer can ask. Everything else stems from this. Some recommended maximum grazing periods are one to two days for dairy and three to four days for all other classes of livestock.

Animals must remain in a paddock long enough for them to get their fill, but not so long that they begin to graze plant re-growth. Plants may have grazable re-growth after two to three days, and the shorter the period in the paddock, the better the plant and animal production per acre. Short grazing durations also foster increased animal intake and provide higher quality forages than if the animals are in the paddock for longer periods of time. In fact, as animals remain in a paddock (for more than a few days) their intake of protein decreases, as does availability of high quality digestible dry matter (energy). This is one reason dairy producers who graze high-producing cows will move animals to a new paddock daily, or even a few times a day.

The following ATTRA publications will help you get a handle on planning and matching animal demand to forage resources:

ATTRA Managed Grazing Tutorial

Grazing Calculator: Extended Cow Calf Pair

Irrigated Pastures: Setting Up an Intensive Grazing System That Works

Pasture, Rangeland, and Grazing Management



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