It is hard to believe, but we are squarely into 2023 now, and the active grazing season will be here before we know it. I am still trying to figure out where 2022 went. It seems like the year just flew by (I guess getting older has a lot to do with that).
Each year, in the depth of winter, I prepare for the upcoming grazing season. That includes evaluating what happened in the last grazing season, good and bad, and determining how I can be better at it in the coming season.
In that vein, I want to share with you the things I consider in that preparation.
The first things I always examine are my observations from the prior grazing season. What did I see that grabbed my attention, and how can I use those observations to make better decisions this year?
Here are the things I typically observe and consider:
- My soil. In which pastures do I have good aggregation and infiltration, signs of biology, and evidence of carbon and organic matter building? In which pastures are these things lacking?
- Plants. Have plant species in each pasture increased in diversity, or decreased? If they have decreased, why? What did I do the prior year to facilitate a decrease rather than an increase? Am I seeing more functional group diversity, such as more grasses, legumes and forbs? If not, why not? What were the animals eating last year? How well did my pastures recover after each grazing event?
- Insects. Am I seeing a distinct increase in beneficial insects including pollinators, beetles, aphids and spiders? Am I creating the habitat needed to attract and maintain strong insect populations? In the early mornings, do I see a lot of spider webs in my pastures highlighted by dew and the early morning sun?
- Birds. Are more bird species showing up, and am I seeing more total birds? What about ground nesting species? Are they returning to my landscape?
- Other wildlife. Am I seeing more wildlife returning to my land?
- My livestock. What did my livestock’s manure look like for the majority of the grazing events last year? Was it loose and runny, dry and stacked, or nice and firm? Did my livestock exhibit good gut fill after each grazing event? Were they content after being turned in to new paddocks? How many total bites of the same plant are they taking before being moved into a new paddock?
Are they having to graze more than 6-8 hours of each day to get the nutrition required? What plants are they mostly eating? What plants do they eat a little of? What plants are they avoiding altogether? How are they moving around each paddock? I ask these questions because their movement pattern plays a large role in grazing efficiency and grazing impact.
Biological Hot Spots
I like to identify my obvious biological hot spots and use those strategically to repair my weaker areas.
A biological hot spot is an area with observed plant species diversity, good ground cover, excellent soil aggregation and below-ground biology, good insect and bird activity, and good biomass production. All of us have areas like this.
Instead of focusing on your poorest areas first, I recommend starting with your best areas, and “grow” that biology into the poorer areas. Livestock are very effective in transferring biology and plant species diversity from one place to another.
Biology ripples out, much like throwing a pebble into a pond, with the ripples growing out to where they finally reach the banks. Graze the hot spots using higher stock density and short durations, then move the livestock to the poorer areas so they can deposit the biology and seed there where it can “grow.”
You can also create some biological hot spots through bale grazing. Bale grazing can be done in the winter or in the summer months. It is not confined to a specific season or time of the year.
I also like to use contour grazing to effectively move biology and seed to another area. Most graziers use either square-shaped paddocks or rectangular paddocks most of the time.
Yet within our pastures there can be differences in topography, soil types, and soil/plant performance. Continually fencing in the typical fashion usually combines these multiple differences into the same paddock, which creates issues with the way the livestock use that paddock.
Instead, recognize these differences, and create paddocks that follow the contours or boundaries of these different areas. The beauty of polywire is that it can conform to whatever shape we need to effectively graze a pasture.
We have used the concept of contour or boundary grazing quite effectively to more rapidly repair and restore biological function and diversity to entire fields. It requires that you be creative in designing your paddocks and getting livestock to water and shade, but that is part of the fun of adaptive grazing.
Effective Stock Density
If you are implementing adaptive grazing, then you are quite familiar with the concept of stock density as compared to stocking rate. Stock density is simply the pounds per acre of livestock we are deploying at any given moment.
One of the things I have noted time after time is that our calculated stock density and our actual stock density (what I refer to as “effective” stock density) can vary significantly.
For example, if we have implemented higher stock density moves — say 400,000 lbs./acre or higher — for some period of time, our livestock often become used to (and even comfortable with) moving around in a tighter mob.
If we build a paddock two acres in size and have 80,000 lbs. of cattle on that paddock, our calculated stock density per acre is 40,000 lbs. However, if cattle have been trained to be comfortable with higher stock densities, they tend to move around that two-acre paddock in a much tighter group. So, their “effective” stock density on at least a portion of those two acres is much higher than the calculated 40,000 lbs./acre. Often our own estimates of effective stock density on portions of paddocks exceeds 500,000 lbs./acre.
This makes a profound difference over multiple grazing events and years. In observing this phenomenon, I can see the differences in the paddocks where livestock moved together in a fluid fashion.
How do you train your livestock to stay together in tighter mobs? You first have to put them into tighter mobs and that is accomplished by initially creating smaller paddocks. Once they get comfortable, livestock tend to stick more closely to each other as they move around a paddock, even when you relax the calculated stock density.
Be sure to follow the third Rule of Adaptive Stewardship— the Rule of Disruption.
I will not spend a lot of time in this article detailing the Rule of Disruption because you can read more about it on our website: https://understandingag.com/adaptive-grazing-rules-part-2/
Take note of the specific disruptions you implemented during the previous year’s grazing and where you used a specific disruption. Make a conscious effort to alter those specific disruptions in each pasture for the coming grazing season. If you simply repeat the same disruption in the same pasture year after year, it is no longer a disruption and will cease being effective.
Be very intentional about the disruptions or combinations of disruptions you use in a given pasture. Different disruptions produce different results and have different intentions.
You will note that I have not spent any time on specific grazing tips, such as turning in when the grass is a certain height and taking off at a certain height. That would be prescriptive, not adaptive. Prescribed grazing systems always hit a wall at some point, and progress ceases. Giving you a prescription would be a disservice.
Instead, focus on making consistent observations and using those observations to make decisions for the next grazing season. Identify your biological hotspots and grow those out to your poorer areas.
To help you grow that biology:
- Use contour grazing to successfully transfer biology and diversity from one area to another;
- Observe and understand effective stock density and how to use that to make more rapid progress; and
- Consistently implement planned, purposeful disruptions.
Happy grazing in 2023!