What's the one good thing about making a mistake? Learning from it. Thus, BEEF asked three range management specialists to weigh in on the most common grazing management mistakes they see of producers and to offer strategies to correct these errors.
Missouri's Maurice Davis, retired Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) state grassland conservationist, says the most frequent mistake he saw during his career was producers allowing livestock to graze pastures too short. Grazing a pasture to the ground, either because it's overstocked or the livestock have been left there too long, “does not leave enough residual plant material to carry on photosynthesis,” he says.
As a result, Davis says root growth stoppage begins. “That means top growth of the plant also stops,” he adds.
Specifically, research shows when up to 50% of a plant's leaf volume is removed, root growth stoppage is about 2-4%. If 60% of the leaf volume is removed, root growth stoppage escalates to about 50%. At 80% removal, the roots have no regrowth.
Davis has a long history of working with the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center and the annual management intensive grazing schools it hosts. To prevent overgrazing, he suggests producers monitor when to move animals to new pasture based on residual plant material — the green stuff left after grazing.
Davis and most range managers advocate the rule, “take half and leave half,” meaning once the forage has been grazed to about half its volume across the pasture, cattle should be moved to a new pasture.
Pastures can be grazed shorter, but then the rest period required for recovery becomes longer, Davis says. As a guideline on introduced pastures, he says plants should not be grazed below a minimum of 3 in.
Be prepared to adapt
John McLain, a range consultant with Resource Concepts, Inc., based in Nevada, counts lack of flexibility as a reoccurring mistake in range management situations.
“We're hearing the word adaptive management more these days,” McLain says. “But in the past, there has been an absence of flexibility especially by federal agencies in administering public lands grazing.”
He adds, “Good land managers have to allow for flexibility and adaptive management in grazing systems to achieve desired objectives.”
Similarly, Texas rancher John “Chip” Merrill says the most common mistake he sees producers make is not reducing stocking rates soon enough when they realize they're in trouble during drought.
Merrill, who directed Texas Christian University's Ranch Management Program from 1961 to 1996, says, “It takes nerve to cutback when you'd rather not, but if producers adjust as they go, the resource is still in good shape, the cattle are in good condition, and the markets haven't declined.”
He adds, “It is much less of a risk to adjust early than to hold on too long.”
Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer based in Spearfish, SD, and a former Managing Editor of BEEF magazine.
Be proactive on drought
A common error among ranchers is failing to plan for drought.
Rod Heitschmidt, USDA's Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, MT, says producers don't have to wait until they're out of forage before making management decisions. Instead, Heitschmidt says producers can be proactive by monitoring precipitation early on during the growing season and making decisions based on historical data.
“Drought is quite normal in the Northern Great Plains, and historical precipitation probabilities can be a good indicator of years when drought will be likely,” he says.
For instance, Heitschmidt says historical records show that a current year's forage production is primarily a function of April and May precipitation with June being less important than one would think.
Additionally, from evaluating more than 15 years of research from 15 different data sets, Heitschmidt says 70% of forage for the year is typically produced by June 1 in the Northern Great Plains and 90% is grown by July 1. He clarifies that there's no way to judge how much total forage will be produced, just that 90% of the total amount will be grown by early July.
Thus, by monitoring spring precipitation, Heitschmidt says producers in the Northern Great Plains can begin to make drought decisions by July 1.
Here's why. Heitschmidt says producers know whether their spring precipitation is below, near or above normal. Even if they get 1 in. of rain in July, it won't grow as much forage as 1 in. of precipitation in April. Therefore, if spring rainfall is below normal, he suggests producers should plan in early July to take positive action to reduce risk.
“Wean early or sell open cows,” he suggests. “If you hang on until you're completely out of forage in October, you're putting yourself at risk.”