Pasture management: mistakes to avoid when grazing livestock

Feb 7, 2014

A while back, I wrote a very popular article “The 17 Mistakes to Avoid when Building an Electric Fence.” This article was a list of actual mistakes I had made. This fencing article went somewhat viral and it still gets hits on the internet. Why? I guess it’s the popularity of telling people what mistakes you made so that they can avoid them. So, here is a shot at mistakes to avoid when grazing animals.

Don’t let your animals set a grazing habit: Cows tend to know where the best grass is located and walk right by other usable forage. An example of this is that older cows often establish a habitual pattern of grazing use, compared to new cattle; in other words, “they know the ropes.” This has its pros and cons. But from a management strategy, switching and mixing up grazing patterns, changing herd leaders or using yearling cattle will open up new grazing areas.

Grazing time; too long in one pasture: There is something called “sacrifice areas” around water holes, shade grounds, riparian areas, etc., that become beat up (overgrazed) and lose their potential to produce. Some suggestions to help lessen the stress include speeding up the rotation, rotating pastures quickly during fast plant growth (stay only 3-5 days in one unit), and constructing water gaps or movable water tanks.

Pastures too large: I once inventoried a huge ranch with pastures having 25,000 acres in one unit. There is no way livestock can use large areas effectively. Just cutting a large pasture in half is a start. We just visited an Eastern Montana ranch and the manager said, “Two men can build two miles of singlestrand polywire fence in two hours.” He customized a hand rototiller motor to power roll the wire back up. Wow, what a time saver and good management tool.

Pastures too small: This happens in those handy backyard pastures; these small units can be grubbed down to dirt way too fast. We all enjoy convenience, but I suggest to rotate, rotate, and rotate some more.

Following the same grazing rotation pattern year after year: Again cows are just like us humans; we don’t like too much change. We get very used to tradition. Spring pasture move to summer pastures and then back to fall pastures. Certain forage plants need rest for full recovery especially during fast plant growth. So do your best to mix up a traditional rotation pattern year after year. It will put more money in your pocket by having more forage available.

Low stocking rate: Light grazing can cause over-grazing and over-rest in forage plants growing side by side. I once evaluated a horse pasture and found that only 10 percent of the area was actually grazed and 90 percent not used. What a waste of forage resources. Stock for a drought year, and take in outside livestock for wet years. Distribution of livestock is always a challenge. It takes some serious planning.

Low number of pastures: I’m a firm believer of the more grazing areas you can have, the better off you’d become. Your pastures would not become depleted and your animals would be healthier and put on more weight which will put more profit in your pocket. Isn’t this what it is all about? It’s all about flexibility. For example, instead of two large summer pastures, what if you could fence your whole ranch into 36 units. If you spend only 10 days in each grazing area, 36 pastures (36 x 10 = 360 days) would give you a years’ worth of grazing. It also gives you flexibility to take advantage of any situation “Mother Nature” gives you!

Non-flexible stocking rate: What happens to a ranch that has no new springtime grass growth? This happened in eastern Montana in the year of 1988. Because of the severe drought, the rangelands forgot to green up. As I would drive around, many summertime pastures appeared as heavily grazed winter pastures, just sagebrush and cow pies.

One client of mine sold his cow herd in favor of yearlings. His quote to me was:

“Wayne, it is a lot easier to put wheels under yearlings than cows.” Think of ways to become more flexible.

Not leaving behind enough standing grass (taking that last bite): Wind has an extreme effect on water evaporation. I remember a great demonstration of this, by one of my old range professors at Montana State University, Bozeman, Dr. Don Ryerson. He would light a wooden match above the vegetation and the wind would blow it out. Then he would move down further into the forage canopy and the match would flicker longer. But down lower the match stayed lit. There is also a great biological rule to follow: “Don’t let your soils see daylight.” There are severe consequences when we overgraze.

Not making “Whole Family Decisions:” When someone makes a dramatic change and does not check in with family and other decision makers, trouble can follow. If my wife wants to stop me dead in my tracks, this is all she has to say: “Is this thing you are about to do a Whole Family Decision?” Oops, I had better slow down and have that talk-it-over. We guys sometimes don’t want to talk, but in the long run, it’s wise to have these kinds of discussions that prevent problems further down the road. After all, two or more heads are better than one and we will reap what we sow! —Wayne Burleson [Wayne is a partially retired land management consultant and a passionate international food gardener.