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The Natural Science of Artful Grazing

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Aghast and jaws dropped, Livestock Consultant Bryan Nichols, Seth Pratt and I watched a set of two calves disappear over the hill into the next grazing paddock accompanied by the heart-dropping sounds of stretching fence and popping insulators. Such was the situation as we attempted to herd the calves into their designated grazing pen for the grazing research project.

This was day three of the second phase of our grazing project, which looks at the differences between a continuous grazing system and a rotational grazing system. With 12 paddocks and two calves per paddock, it was a complicated task compounded by the somewhat nervous temperament of our bovine subjects.

The initial steps for the project began more than two weeks earlier when my officemate, Helen Holstein, and I, accompanied by Ag Research Associate Mike Proctor, ran transects to determine the plant composition of the paddocks. Helen and I were quick to learn the saying "plants don't follow rules and certainly have never read the botany books" as we struggled to identify scraggly and sometimes dead plants plucked from the points along the transect line.

After the first day of running transects and depleting a full box of freezer bags to collect unknown specimens, we resorted to our best resource and requested the consultants' help. They quickly came to our rescue, and, in no time at all, we were ready for the next step, which involved many cups of coffee and early mornings at the calf pens to weigh each individual calf and determine its temperament.

Unfortunately, our ability to successfully gauge each calf's personality was a bit off, and this provided an exciting climax on Wednesday when the calves were finally moved to their grazing pastures. After fixing fence and trading out belligerent bovines, everything was in place and we were prepared for the next 30 days of daily moves and collecting samples.

As we pass the halfway point, I find it very useful to think about the many lessons this opportunity provided. Lesson number one is a greater appreciation for quality range research, which has proved to be incredibly time consuming and may not even yield any data of measurable value. But perhaps even more important is the understanding that there is no silver bullet for greater range health and livestock productivity. While this may be disappointing, it certainly leaves a Pandora's box of opportunity just waiting to be opened by the inquisitive mind.

Ira Parsons is a 2014 Lloyd Noble Scholar in Agriculture from Leavenworth, Kansas.