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Are You Working Your Pastures "Hard" or "Smart"?

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Posted May 31, 2009

The "summer" growing season in our geographical region is usually considered to be from about mid-April through mid-November. Most of the grass growth should occur by early July. In fact, 70 percent of the annual production of summer perennial grasses is expected by the first of July. If you are not purchasing hay to extend the grazing season (i.e., providing all forages for your livestock from your property as standing hay or baled hay), you should be about halfway there by the first of June. Now is the time to make an assessment of your pastures, think about what you are seeing and determine if your forage production is on track. Ask yourself, "Am I working my pastures smart or just hard?"

To determine if you are working your pastures hard or smart, consider your pasture and grazing plan. What was your plan this spring? Were fertilizer and/or weed control measures implemented? What kinds and classes of livestock will be present, how many and for how long? Have you made efficient use of the forage types in your pastures? Do you have the production you planned for by now and what are the prospects of achieving your end-of-season goal?

If your response is: "Whoa, Aljoe! I did not want to get into complicated considerations this time of year. I am just running a few cows," then my gut instinct tells me that odds are you're working your pastures hard, not smart.

If your response is: "Fertilizer and herbicide were applied as planned to meet my stocking rate needs. My pastures have responded according to expectations relative to rainfall. The grazing plan is allowing for some accumulation now with excess to be hayed or set aside for winter grazing," I'd suspect that you are working your pastures smart.

Now there are those that get by pretty well without some sort of plan. Some of these folks are just plain lucky, but most are managing their stocking rate at a very conservative number. There is nothing wrong with this method if your revenues are exceeding your costs. You could, however, be leaving extra returns on the table. Without a little planning, your luck might not hold and you will not know if there is a better alternative.

Working smart requires planning before the grazing season begins, conducting regular forage production assessments and making adjustments to the plan throughout the season. It usually starts with knowing your pastures and soils, and their productive capabilities. It requires knowing the grazing requirements of your livestock for the duration they will be grazing on the property. It also helps to know the effect of management practices on soils, pastures and livestock. Of course, plans made during the winter or early spring won't always be your final actions throughout the season, but with appropriate monitoring and adjustments, the outcomes should be very similar. The original plan may not be worth the paper it is written on, but going through the thought process is more than worth the effort.

If your pastures tend to remain short most of the year, your pastures are working harder than optimal. Unfortunately, there are a lot of pastures that have that overworked appearance most of the year. The good news is that there are professionals at the Noble Research Institute, and at county extension and NRCS offices in your state that are willing to assist you in remedying that overworked appearance of your pastures. Remember - even in June, it is not too late to start this year.

We all can work hard, but our goal should be to work hard at working smart. It is usually more productive and certainly leads to better land stewardship. So take a look at your pastures and ask yourself "Am I working my pastures smart or hard - or am I just plain lucky?"