A Grazing Experiment

One very important aspect of running a ranch is knowing how much forage you have available to your animals and how much they will need.  I devised an Excel spreadsheet that uses these two things along with how big a pasture is to give an estimate on how long the cattle can stay in a pasture without overgrazing it.

This came in really handy when we decided to do a little more intensive grazing with the heifers.  They got moved into a set of pastures that wasn’t grazed at all last year so there was an abundance of food available to them.  The goal was to try to get them to utilize more of the standing forage and trample the rest which would speed up the nutrient cycle and make more nutrients available to the plants next year.

We wanted the heifers to stay in each small paddock for approximately three days.  I measured how much grass was available to the heifers by using a grazing stick.  It looks like a yard stick and it is used to measure the height of the grasses.  Then you take into account how much the grass weights per inch based on the type of grasses that are in the pasture, and how efficiently the cows will use this grass to come up with a number that tells how much grass will be available in the pasture.

The next step is to take the number of cows that will be in the pasture and figure out how much they will eat in one day based on their weight.  Lastly, I knew that we wanted to keep the cows in a small paddock for three days, so using how much they would eat in three days and how much was available to them I was able to determine how many acres of pasture they would need.  It turned out that the heifers needed about 3 &frac12; acres for three days of grazing.

We first moved the heifers to this pasture on July 3rd.  We wanted to make a paddock large enough to hold them for six days because we did not want to have to move them over the holiday weekend.  I built the temporary fence while Luke brought them over in the trailer.  We gave them range cake (pictured below) which is a large pellet-like treat for the cows.  If they get used to getting this treat you can use it as a tool to move them from place to place.  The goal is to get them familiar with the sound of the cake rattling in a bucket and then they will follow the person with the bucket because they know they will get a treat.  The first day we didn’t need to get them to follow, but we gave them cake to get them used to the taste.

On July 8th the cows needed to be moved.  I set up another temporary fence to create the south boundary of the second paddock, and the first fence that I put up would be the north boundary.  After that I had to herd the heifers into the penned in area by the water tank so I could put up a little lane that they would use to get back to the water tank and which would keep them out of the areas that they had grazed already.  Well, they weren’t yet as used to the cake as I would have liked, because they did not follow me.  In fact, they went the complete opposite direction.  I remembered that Luke told me once that cows will move better if they think it’s their idea to move.  So I let them go where they wanted because they would find a fence in about 500 feet or so.  So they wandered to that fence which was the farthest they could go in the wrong direction.  When they found out they couldn’t go any farther they slowly turned as a herd and went the other direction.  I then walked behind them and slowly but surely we made it back to the water tank and I was able to give them some cake and lock them in by the water so I could finish building my fence.  The whole process of moving them probably took me 45 minutes.  I’m sure it would have taken Luke 10.

The picture below is of the first grazed paddock on the left and an ungrazed pasture on the right.

This is the first grazed paddock on the left and the second ungrazed paddock on the right.

These are the same two paddocks, just on the opposite sides.

I fenced the second paddock to allow for three days of grazing.  On the third day Luke and I went out to check the heifers and we realized they still had enough grass to graze one more day.  The next day I came to build the third fence, extend the lane, and take down the first fence.  I built the third fence which was now the south boundary for the third paddock.  I shortened the east and west sides by 25 feet in the hopes that it would cut the grazing time back down to three days rather than four.  The plan was to move the cows into the third paddock by unhooking one side of the temporary fence and then herding them to that corner where they would easily walk through the gap.  Not surprisingly, they did not want to go where I wanted them to.  So I let them go where they wanted like the last time hoping that they would get to the far side and then turn around.  About half way across the pasture they decided they wanted to go through the fence that was up.  The fence was not energized because I was working on it, so they did not get shocked when they went through it.  Another failed move.

This is the second grazed paddock and the third ungrazed paddock.

This is a closeup of the trampled and eaten grass in the second paddock.  You can see that there is a lot of dead brown stuff, which is what we call litter from the plants last year.  This litter was not able to break down as well as it would have if there had been cows grazing it last year.  By stepping on it and adding natural fertilizer from the cows, it increases the speed at which it breaks down by getting it closer to the soil which contains all of the beneficial microorganisms that break down organic matter.

Finally on the third move I got it right.  By this time they were used to getting cake.  Several in the herd would eat it out of my hands, so I would lure those few in the direction I wanted them to go using the cake as a reward when they came my way.  Soon the rest of the herd was left behind, and being a herd animal, they didn’t want to be separated from the rest.  So eventually they all followed me to where I wanted them to go.  When we got everyone into the next paddock I gave them all cake as a reward.

This is the third and final grazed pasture next to the ungrazed rest of the pasture on the left.

The pasture was big enough to make several more small paddocks, but Luke was going to be out-of-state for a week, and I was going to be gone for two weekends and for a Monitoring Workshop.  So we decided to turn them into the rest of the pasture, and then next year Luke could look at the differences in regrowth between the small paddocks the rest of the pasture.

This is a view of the second paddock in the foreground, the third paddock in the midground, and the last ungrazed piece of pasture in the background.

The next picture is a closeup of the area where a temporary fence was.  The cattle wouldn't graze under it because they could get a shock if they got too close.

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