Intensive grazing increases productivity

Jul 17, 2009
by WLJ
Intensive grazing increases productivity

Managing animals’ time on pasture can increase the stocking rate while providing palatable nutrition to the animals, said Doug Anderson, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension educator in Keith, Arthur and Perkins counties.

At a recent equine conference in North Platte, Anderson said that cool season grasses such as “cheat grass” can be grazed as early as March, when they start to grow. While these grasses seem undesirable later in the season, they’re nutritious, they’re palatable, and they’re usable in spring; so producers should use them while they can, he said. If cool season grasses are allowed to mature, their stem to leaf ratio decreases, reducing palatability and nutritional value.

“We want to have a lot of animals in a small area putting pressure on undesirable plants,” Anderson said. “Basically, we’re going to eat them to death.”

Warm season grasses start later and their growth rate is slower, Anderson said. These plants are at their best in June. To extend the grazing life of these plants, producers should graze them early, then allow them to rest and regrow.

Each plant has a zone of rapid growth, Anderson said, a height at which they make enough energy to sustain growth and also build up an energy reserve. Producers should allow their horses to graze these grasses early in their growing season, then let them reach that zone of rapid growth, allowing them to build some energy reserves.

They can then graze those paddocks again without damaging the plant. Anderson identified three grazing systems. First is continuous grazing, which is basically one big fence around the whole pasture and putting the horses into that pasture for the season, assuming five or six acres per horse.

In rotational grazing, a producer divides the pasture. A quarter section, for example, might be divided into quarters—40 acres to a paddock.

“Now we’re managing time,” Anderson said. Horses go into paddock 1 for a certain number of weeks and when they’ve grazed that down so the grasses’ response slows, they’re moved to paddock 2 where they have all new plants to graze. That rotation continues until all the pastures have been grazed.

In an intensive grazing system, the four paddocks are further subdivided, maybe into eight paddocks of 20 acres each. The horses stay in each paddock for much less time before moving on to new grass.

“It’s a more uniform way to use the plants,” Anderson said. “The horses are forced to graze all the plants rather than just their favorites.”

Producers should take care to rotate their starting paddock from year to year. “If you started in paddock 1S in June this year,” he said, “you should not start in that same paddock next June. By grazing the same paddock at the same time each year, you’ll change the composition of the grass.”

Anderson said electrical barriers are more economical than building new threestrand barbless wire fences. Each paddock must have access to water and perhaps shelter. Although subdividing pastures involves a bit more labor and management, the result will be more nutritious and palatable grass, and more of it. — WLJ