Graze The Prairie
Range and Pasture Consulting
Introduction – There are many ways to measure improvement in range and pasture conditions. Traditional measures include transect monitoring, stocking rate increases, animal performance changes, and exclusion cages. All of these have advantages and disadvantages. Transects have long been the standard, but placement is problematic and they are very time consuming to read. The other methods listed are less time constrained, but more general in their application, meaning the land owner gets less useful data. However, from a practical point of view, often the quick and dirty methods are the best.
Tools – The grazer has only a few tools at his disposal. These include fencing, fire, chemicals, and heavy equipment in addition to livestock. Most operators concerned with range improvement quickly realize that chemicals and equipment are too expensive to use alone, although may be cost-effective when used with spot treatments, such as cut-stump spraying of invasive hardwoods. Fire can be a useful tool if sufficient personnel and equipment are available for control, and fuel on the ground is sufficient to carry the fire across the desired area. However, inherent dangers with fire and often undesired correlated responses on native wildlife preclude its widespread use within individual ranch boundaries.
The object of most grazing systems is to control the amount of time livestock spend in one area. This is accomplished most often with electric fencing, but can be successfully done with herding, or by placing attractants, such as feed/mineral, in the area the manager wants to be grazed. However it is accomplished, the goal is to increase stock density which is merely the pounds of livestock per acre of available grazing area. The livestock are then moved periodically to fresh areas as needed for maximum performance and effective range usage.
Stock Density is the most important component of time-controlled grazing. It concentrates the manure (fertilizer) in a smaller area, increases forage utilization by 30-40%, and lets livestock trample old, rank grass and small shrubs into the ground increasing the cover and thus decreasing evaporation and erosion. Other benefits include a tighter pack of livestock meaning less predation, especially with sheep and goats, and less time spent checking the herd since they are confined to a smaller area and are in one or two large mobs.
The recovery period post grazing is the key to the success of a high-density, short-duration grazing system. Plants should be allowed to fully recover prior to the next grazing cycle. In arid areas, this often means only one grazing pass in the growing season, and then perhaps one more in the dormant season. In more temperate climates, 2-3 passes can be utilized, depending on rainfall, humidity and temperature.
Regardless of the area, though, the object is to drive the ecosystem toward forage production and away from woody plant production, at least in areas where prairie is or historically was the dominant ecology. Native, warm season grasses like Big Bluestem, Switch grass, and Indian Grass evolved under heavy grazing pressure from wild ungulates like Bison, Deer and Antelope and thus thrive under intense grazing systems.
Given sufficient time to recover from a disturbance (fire, grazing, etc.), grasses regrow quickly due to their fibrous root system. This keeps the ground covered and doesn’t allow tap-rooted woody plants and weeds to invade the pasture.
Often, because of the size of a ranch tackling high density grazing in the whole area at once is too daunting of a task. Improvements can be started in a favored area or on certain pastures that contain classes of livestock that might benefit most from these improvements. One example is yearling steers in a program to gain weight on pasture prior to finishing in a feedlot. More frequent rotation is the key to increased performance, and steers are easily rotated. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful rotating cows and calves.
The improvements to the ranch are often in the eye of the beholder, but are more than just increased livestock performance. Wildlife flourishes with these systems, especially game birds like quail and prairie chicken (grouse). Many species of grasses are usually present in the seed bank, and time-controlled grazing allows these to grow and mature. Wildflowers show similar patterns. Erosion is decreased, run-off is slowed, ponds become clearer and the water stays colder providing better habitat for fish. Stream banks grass over, become less vertical and creeks eventually regain some sinuosity which further slows down the water. The water table rises under the ranch which helps water wells and during drought. The range is healthy and will likely show a reddish tint in the winter instead of the grey/white hue present on lower quality ranges.
Using ranch maps, we can identify a certain area to begin with, as many or as few acres as everyone is comfortable with. Probably the easier way to start is to get a group of cattle broke to electric fence, and then start grazing them at as high of a stock density as you can provide water to. We put up exclusion cages on a few key sites to measure total pounds of forage production and usage, and run at least one permanent transect to monitor progress. Graze The Prairie personnel will provide a yearly report of the following:
1. Pounds of forage grown.
2. Pound of forage eaten/trampled.
3. Species of grasses present.
4. Percent of total forage by species.
5. Ground cover.
6. Nutrition content of grasses throughout the year.
7. Stock density and carrying capacity.
8. An overall score card of pasture/range conditions.
The operator can use these factors to monitor whether or not the range is heading the right direction and change if necessary.
1. Reimbursement of all travel expenses. Every effort will be made to keep these as low as possible.
2. $300 per day for up to 3 days, then $250 per day after that. Other arrangements can be made ahead of time as negotiated between the parties.