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Management on a small acreage.

On most small farms, pasture management is the most crucial factor involved in keeping cattle. Your total acreage (whether 3 or 30) will dictate how many cattle you can graze, as will your climate (whether you have year round grazing or seasonal grass growth), and how you rotate or manage the pasture. You can always grow more grass (and hence more beef) with well managed pasture, grazed in a rotation system, than you can when using it as one big field. In the latter situation some plants are overgrazed and may weaken and die out, while some of the least favorite plants may never be eaten unless the cattle run out of better feed.

How many cattle will your pasture support?

On average, a good quality pasture--good soil, containing palatable forage plants rather than weeds--that gets adequate moisture from rainfall or irrigation will easily feed 2 adult beef animals per acre (such as yearlings or dry cows) during the growing season. Diligent mob grazing--moving the cattle frequently from one very small portion of the pasture to another and then allowing it to completely regrow before returning to that same piece--will increase this stocking rate.

It will take more pasture to feed a lactating cow (cow/calf pair), especially a high-producing cow that gives a lot of milk, such as Gelbveih or Simmental; they may need twice the energy at peak lactation than they did when they were dry. When you go from a dry cow at maintenance to peak lactation, you have doubled the stocking rate on the farm in terms of forage demand, even before you add in what the calf grazes.

A good rule of thumb would be one acre per cow/calf pair, and you might need to adjust this figure a little to fit your pastures and type of cattle. After the peak of the growing season, when climate becomes hotter and/or drier, it may take 50 percent more pasture acreage to feed the same animals if you are depending on it to regrow that same season. In a climate that has cold winters, grass growth will slow or stop after the weather turns cold in late fall.

If you live in a dry climate and part or all of your land is not feasible to irrigate (too steep, or no available water source or water right), forage plants will likely be native grasses. Many of these are quite nutritious, but not as productive (not as many tons of forage per acre) as tame grasses that depend on regular watering (from rain or irrigation). Without irrigation, it takes more land to raise cattle in the arid West, for instance, where annual rainfall might be 6 to 12 inches of moisture, compared to a farm in the East or Midwest where rainfall might be 25 inches or more.

On native hillside pastures in the West it might take 10 to 50 acres to feed a cow and calf for one month. Overgrazing this type of pasture will damage the plants and eventually kill them. Native grasses evolved being grazed (by elk and bison) and are healthiest if grazed during their growing season, but were grazed by wandering herds that grazed them once or twice in a season and moved on. Repeated grazing by confined animals throughout the growing season may weaken and kill the plants. Dryland (non-irrigated) pastures always take more acreage per animal because the grass grows more slowly and there is more space between plants. Thus the number of cattle you can raise without supplemental purchased feed will depend not only on the amount of acreage you have, but also on the climate, access to irrigation water, soil types and forage plants.

One way to use summer grass is to buy small yearlings in spring when grass begins to flourish, graze them until fall, and sell them when pasture quality and quantity begins to decline. If you have a herd of cows, they can be fed hay during the winter or dry season, and calved when grass starts to grow.

It's often most economical to calve during the time of year your grass is starting to grow, rather than too early in spring when the cows are still on hay. If cows have their increased nutritional needs during peak lactation met by pasture, and calves are sold or weaned before the cows need hay in late fall, you save money on hay. Your calves may not be as big in the fall as early-born calves, but they are more profitable. You'll have less winter feed cost associated with raising the later born calf.

Don't assume that reduced weaning weight means reduced profit. Cost should always be considered, whether you are raising calves or yearlings to sell, or fattening a beef to butcher. The more days the animal can be grazing (versus eating hay) during peak nutritional demand, the lower the annual cost of keeping that animal on the farm.

For best results in grazing management, look at forage demand rather than cattle numbers--and try to match the number of cattle with what the pasture will produce. Be observant and aware of what's happening with the pasture and cattle, and flexible enough to adjust the stocking rate according to the pasture conditions, and to learn from your mistakes.

Rotational grazing

If you have good quality tame pastures (with adequate rainfall or irrigation) you can get maximum beef production per acre by using rotational grazing, timing the grazing of each small pasture segment when the plants are most ready, then letting them regrow while you graze another part. Giving each pasture enough rest to recover before coming back to it may allow you to regraze it several times during a growing season.

Grass grows in three stages. Stage one occurs when it comes out of dormancy, after winter, or after being harvested--as hay or by grazing--down to short stubble. It takes awhile for it to grow enough leaf area to capture enough solar energy to grow rapidly (phase two). Cattle prefer the grass in phase one because it is tender and succulent, and high in nutritional quality.

If a pasture is grazed continually through the season, without rest periods facilitated by rotation, cattle keep going back to the same short plants, seeking out phase one grasses. This stresses the plants because they don't have enough leaf area to support their maintenance needs. Plants have maintenance requirements and growth requirements, just like animals do. In phase one, the grass is just maintaining itself; the small amount of growth is very high quality, and grazing animals really like to eat it.

If the pasture is rested during phase one, the plants start to accumulate enough leaf area to where they can grow more swiftly (phase two). This fast growth will continue until the mass of the plant takes a lot of energy to maintain its large structure. By then some of the lower leaves will be shaded by upper ones and some leaves start dying. When the plant gets to that point it goes into phase three, in which growth rate slows dramatically. This is the phase in which it would be cut for hay; the plant is as large as it's going to get. If you're grazing a pasture, however, rather than cutting it as hay, you may want to keep as much grass as possible in stage two (rapid growth)--for best total production during the growing season.

The ideal situation is to keep cattle off the pasture until grass enters phase two and is not as easily damaged or set back by grazing. Put cattle into the pasture when the grass is four-to-six inches tall and let them graze until they eat it down to about three inches. If you graze it all the way back to phase one, stripping the plant of its leaves, it will take much longer to recover. It needs a longer rest period before you can graze it again. This may make the rest period longer than you can afford, if you only have a few pastures.

Overgrazing is defined as a plant being grazed before it has a positive carbohydrate balance--such as too early in the growing season, or continuously eating it down before it gains enough reserves. In a continuous grazing situation, when animals stay in the same pasture year round or all through summer, overgrazing occurs on the favorite plants because cattle keep grazing them back to phase one. This can happen if you have cattle in a pasture too long or the rest period is too short in a rotation system. In a continuously grazed pasture you'll see overgrazed areas (phase one grass) right next to mature patches the cattle won't eat (phase three) because the plants are overmature and coarse--with no phase two grass.

If you have abundant rainfall or do a good job of irrigating, and keep the number of animals in balance with the pasture, you can get by with continuous grazing (not having to rotate pastures). The common problems in this situation (in most climates) are temperature extremes, and not always being able to have the grass watered when it needs it. Growth rate fluctuates, with grass growing very fast for awhile and then slowing; it's hard to keep all the grass in phase two. Rotational grazing gives you more chance to try to hold grass in phase two for as much of the season as possible.

Fencing for rotational grazing

Depending on your situation, you may want permanent fence or portable fencing to divide your pastures, fence off ditchbanks or other small grazing areas from hayfields, etc. If there's a chance you might want to use the field or pasture as a whole (or put up hay on it), use temporary fence to divide it.

Temporary electric fencing is inexpensive and can be quickly and easily moved if you use push-in posts--and you don't need gates. You can move cattle from one area to another just by setting two tall sticks or pieces of PVC pipe in the fenceline for a moment to raise and hold the wire at a height the cattle can go under it and into the new section of pasture. Once cattle learn they can do this, it's easy to move them through the fence, without needing a gate.

BY HEATHER SMITH THOMAS

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Title Annotation:Crops & soils
Author:Thomas, Heather Smith
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Nov 1, 2013
Words:1727
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