Getting More Out of Your Grass
Over the past several years there have been numerous articles, testimonials, seminars, presentations, and short courses on grazing management. The audience for these efforts all work within a unique set of conditions, including rainfall amount and distribution, vegetation, terrain, time constraints, etc. Even with such a variety of situations, the most common question asked is... "What can I do that will allow me to run more livestock on my place?" The answer to this question can be as diverse as the conditions that all of you who are reading this operate under. So until there is a prescription written that will work for everyone, you'll continue seeing articles, seminars, and short courses; and folks like me will still have a job... hopefully.
The most obvious method is to increase forage production. In tame pastures this is done primarily through fertilizer and other soil amendments. On rangeland, fertilizer is usually not an option; therefore, increasing the composition of desirable forage species is usually the goal with native forages.
This can be accomplished through chemical and mechanical means, as well as using burning and strategic grazing deferment. To get to the point where you can significantly increase livestock numbers can take a number of years when managing for ecological improvement.
Reseeding rangeland can get you there quicker; however, the economical returns may be minimal unless range condition is already poor. Improving nutrient conversion can help you improve conception rates and in turn increase production per acre. Matching the animal's demands over the year with seasonal forage production is the first step in accomplishing this (growth, pregnancy, and lactation require more and better forage).
So how do you increase forage quality? Proper fertility management on tame pastures will increase protein content of forages to a point. If you have a mixture of undesirable plants in your pastures, burning will increase nutrient concentrations and can reduce the differences in palatability of different forages so that livestock will eat more of the forage that is out there.
Observing animal behavior and managing to reduce stress to livestock will increase efficiency. Anytime animals are rotated to different pastures they will normally take time to re-orient themselves to their surroundings (walking the fences). Fencing arrangements that allow for common watering points can reduce this to a degree. Basically try to avoid anything that will stress animals.
Shade... do you really need it? This has been debated quite a lot recently. In this part of the world, summers can be pretty hot, and in most cases livestock can't go into an air-conditioned building to cool off. Depending on the breed, this can lead to more nighttime grazing, and if visibility is poor livestock have been reported to spend less time grazing.
Increasing harvest efficiency, or getting livestock to ingest a larger proportion of the total forage that is produced during the year or grazing season, is a concept that can either make you or break you. The trick is to increase utilization without overgrazing forages and reducing future production. In order to be successful with this method, you need to have flexibility built into your operation, and by that I mean the ability to rotationally graze. This is especially important if you are trying to increase forage utilization on rangeland.
Basically what you try to do is use grazing pressure to utilize growing forage before it 'turns over' into the litter component. The faster that a plant grows, the faster that it turns over. This process is largely driven by rainfall. So to make this work for you, it is essential that you are aware of rainfall amounts and distribution throughout the grazing season. As the amount of precipitation increases, so does the potential for capturing forage before it turns over, as well as the ability to increase utilization of the forage.
In the north Texas - southern Oklahoma area the window for capturing this turn over and increasing utilization normally occurs in late spring to early summer and in the early fall. Increasing grazing pressure during these periods will allow the livestock to graze the grass while it is actively growing and higher in quality. This is grass that your livestock would normally not get as much of. Of course, this is assuming you get seminormal rainfall patterns, unlike this past year.
The last method to improve production on your place is increasing managerial efficiency. This is an ongoing process for all of us, and it takes time and experience. Naturally, all of these concepts deserve more detailed discussion, and need to be evaluated on how compatible these methods are with your current grazing management.
Rain was pretty short for most this last year, so if you grazed your native grass pastures harder, or later into the fall than you normally would, think about giving them time to recover this spring. Remember that especially with native grasses, what you do in the spring will shape how well your forages will respond the rest of the year.