Oct 21, 2012

SUSTAINABLE FARMING NEWS: Grazing School Covers Managed Gralzing Benefits

Participants at the Eastern Ks. Grazing School had some outside
 class time estimating available forages.

by Jason Schmidt 

With increasing feed and input costs, cattle producers are interested in increased forage utilization by their grazing animals through better grazing management. This interest brought together 55 individuals from over 30 farms to the Lyon County Fairgrounds in Emporia to spend two full days learning about management intensive rotational grazing on September 12 and 13.

This third annual Eastern Kansas Grazing School brought together Kansas and Missouri grazing experts to educate farmers and ranchers on how to become better grazing managers. The school combines hands-on learning experiences in the field with classroom education on subjects including plant and soil management, livestock nutrition, fencing and watering options for designing a rotational grazing system, and the economics of grazing.

David Kraft, State Rangeland Management Specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) kicked off the school with an introduction to Management Intensive Grazing (MIG). Kraft said that MIG is a new idea to many.

The basic concept of rotational grazing is to encourage the grazing animal “to remove as much forage as possible in a short amount of time,” then move the animals to let the plants rest and allow the roots and leaves recover. The more paddocks or cells that are in a rotational grazing system, the higher are the rates of forage utilization.

The class observed a rotational grazing system with a field trip to Fuller Farms near Emporia. Gail Fuller has incorporated a form of rotational grazing called mob grazing into his no-till cropping system to utilize cover crops.

At Fuller Farms on day one, the class was given the assignment to partition off an area big enough to give Fuller’s beef herd enough forage for one day plus ensure half the standing forage in the area was left at the end of one day of grazing. Doug Spencer, NRCS Rangeland Specialist from Marion, explained that it is important to leave half of the growing leaves to ensure rapid recovery of the roots below the ground.

The exercise taught the class how to estimate the amount of forage available in a pasture, calculate the amount of forage consumed by a beef herd, and ultimately determine an appropriate stocking rate. On the second day the class returned to the farm to observe whether they had given Fuller’s cattle herd enough forage for one day.

Along with learning how to estimate how much forage is available and how much forage cattle consume, the class learned about forage species common to eastern Kansas.

David Hallauer, Jefferson County Extension Agent, gave an overview of the growth patterns of different forages and the soil fertility needs to maintain healthy pastures. Hallauer stressed the importance of adequate soil phosphorus levels for healthy plants.

With this year’s grazing school located in Flint Hills, KC Olson, Kansas State University (KSU) livestock specialist, gave an appropriate talk on managing the KSU beef herd year-around on native prairie. Olson told the story of how he has increased the profitability of the beef herd through maximizing grazing utilization of rangeland.

Olson says the number one factor for determining profitability is to “maximize the percent of nutritional cost that can be absorbed by the grazable forage.” This is accomplished by making livestock fit their nutritional environment. For Olson, this meant adjusting the calving season to coincide with the peak forage quality of the prairie in April. Also, to match the harsh environment of the range, Olson is reducing the size of the cows to reduce the maintenance cost of the animals. He said there is a 40% increase in maintenance cost for a 1400 lb cow compared to a 1000 lb cow.

Included among the harsh conditions challenging producers is the historic drought experienced this summer. Olson challenged every livestock producer to have a drought management plan. He outlined how KSU has implemented their drought management plan this summer.

Mark Green, Missouri NRCS, instructed the class on the nuts and bolts of designing and installing a rotational grazing system. Green brought his van packed with fencing and watering tools for hands on demonstrations. Green preached for the need to build flexibility into a rotational grazing system. This means minimizing permanent fences and permanent frost- free waterers, and maximizing the use of electric fences and unburied waterlines.

Wesley Tucker, University of Missouri Extension, drove home the importance of managed grazing. By far the most important variable in determining profitability is feed cost, Tucker said. Feed cost can vary drastically between cow-calf producers ranging from $200-$900 per cow per year. Tucker challenged the school that the cattle industry is undergoing a major shift. The cattle industry was built on “cheap land, cheap feed, cheap fuel, and cheap fertilizer.” Between 2007 and 2008 we saw the disappearance of all these.

Tucker encouraged the class to re-think how we manage our animals to adjust to this change. During the grazing season this means maximizing pasture utilization through grazing management. Over time we can increase the grazing utilization of our cattle from 30% in a continuous grazing situation, to approximately 70% utilization with 24 paddocks, or moving cattle to a new paddock every one or two days. This increase will not happen overnight, but essentially with management we can double our forage base without buying more land. Tucker encouraged participants not to get overwhelmed by the thought of moving cattle every day, but to “move as much as your lifestyle allows.”

During the winter, Tucker said we must stretch grazing as far into the dormant season as possible. Feed and hay drives cost, while grazing drives profitability. Wesley says the Tucker Farm philosophy is that “cows, sheep, goats, and horses can all harvest forages cheaper than you can.” And, with managing our pastures, the only ingredient that we can affect for growing grass is soil nutrients. So, make sure we evenly distribute manure with rotational grazing, and feed hay back on the pastures. Every 1000 lb round bale has approximately $20 worth of nutrients.

Tucker left the school with a final challenging quote from Jim Gerrish, “The more metal and fuel you put between solar energy and a cow’s belly, the less profitable you will be.”

The Grazing School was sponsored by Kansas NRCS, KSU Research and Extension, and the KRC and was funded in-part by a grant from the USDA Risk Management Agency.

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