Focus on Grazing Management, Not Grazing ‘Systems’ Back »

The Society for Range Management held its 69th annual conference in Corpus Christi Texas in February. This year’s theme was ‘Wildlife and Range’, and as always, the conference was filled with many informative presentations by individuals working and living in wildlife and rangeland fields. 

10 Grazing Management Tips

One of the simplest, yet more informative talks I attended was by Dr. Tim Steffens. Dr. Steffens is a rangeland professor at Texas A&M and his talk focused on the importance of keeping the basics of grazing management in mind when considering various grazing ‘systems’. Focusing only on the system and forgetting the fundamental truths of grazing will break any grazing strategy. Dr. Steffens presented his thoughts in ten general points that I’ll summarize here. Regardless of where you are in the world, these principles hold true.

  1. Severe defoliation impacts plants. If too severe, too continuous, or too repetitive, a plant’s root system will suffer. Plants need time to recover from grazing.
  2. Stocking rate determines grazing impact. Even if the grazing manager understands the concept of take ½, leave ½, the grazing animal does not. Animals will impact more or less than 50% in individual pastures and individual plants depending on many factors. So it is up to the manager to manage the grazing, not the animal. 
  3. Timing of grazing is important. The worst timing or impact to the plant is removing the growth point. With timing of grazing, one must consider adequate plant recovery time as well. 
  4. Recovery time after grazing is important. Length of the necessary recovery period is dependent on timing and severity of the defoliation that occurred. Simply stated, a plant that is grazed closer to the ground needs more recovery time that a plant that is lightly grazed.
  5. Erratic periods of growth due to environmental conditions can cause plants to recover at variable rates. Recovery may be slower during periods of drought or extreme heat and faster during periods of adequate precipitation and mild temperatures.
  6. Grazing animals do not use landscapes evenly. A ‘landscape’ can be a large or small pasture and animals will change their grazing habits based on exposure to heat, cold, wind, vegetation, topography, water, minerals, and other factors available in the pasture. These factors will impact how and when an animal grazes. 
  7. To change an animal’s grazing behavior, the manager must understand how the animal uses the pasture. In simple terms, the manager must manage barriers (such as fences, steep topography, etc.) or opportunities (such as desirable forage, water, shade, etc.), or both to achieve the desired outcome or grazing impact.
  8. The ability of the grazing animal to meet its nutritional requirements depends on both the quantity and quality of the forage. 
  9. Grazing intensity is a function of the interaction of available land, herd size, available forage, and grazing duration. A high density of animals on small paddocks doesn’t necessarily equate to more ‘intensity’ as the impact is dependent on grazing duration. A smaller herd on larger pastures over long periods can equate to more ‘intense’ grazing than a larger herd on a small pasture for a short period if the forage base of the large pasture is poor; even if the duration of grazing is relatively short.
  10. If the manager can achieve a state where the grazing animals utilize more of the land area or more of the vegetation, stocking rates can be increased. Higher stock densities can encourage more uniform use in some situations. Too high a stock density can negatively impact vegetation, hurting both total production and recovery time.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line of Dr. Steffens talk was that grazing ‘systems’ thinking can lead one down the road of a fixed-practice approach to grazing management. Rather, he encouraged producers to think about a system of ‘intensive management’ where the manager makes informed decisions based on the current conditions including grazing duration, necessary recovery, and desired outcomes. Dr. Steffens encouraged producers to avoid ‘intensive grazing systems’ decisions are driven by the calendar or a fixed schedule of grazing and recovery, regardless of environmental conditions at the time.

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