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Big Picture Approach Key to a Successful Grazing System

09 April 2013

The false economy of overgrazing, understanding the requirements of marginal and riparian areas and the 365 day concept of the grazing season are the subjects of an Alberta government interview with Grant Lastiwka from the Alberta Ag-info Centre.

EFP Opens Doors for Discussion, Contributes to Total Farm Sustainability

An EFP lets producers look at grazing as part of whole farm sustainability.

When it comes to grazing management systems, it's what you leave behind that can make all the difference.

And according to Grant Lastiwka, grazing/forage/beef specialist with Alberta Ag-Info Centre in Olds, research in Alberta shows that the most highly-profitable beef producers in the province are those that rely on a long grazing season and a well-managed forage resource.

It's a strategy with proven benefits on many levels — resulting in cows with good body weight, suitable to be rebred; highly productive calves at side, as well as environmental benefits that naturally flow from sound pasture management.

"To me, a grazing season is a 365-day dynamic management plan that flows from one year to the next," Lastiwka explains. "I have to have cattle someplace in spring. I have to have cattle someplace in fall, but I've got to manage those times so that they are times with biological recovery. So those same stands will maintain that vigour, that thickness of green solar panel, and the volume that comes with thickness and height. They will be able to replenish nutrients removed with the grazing bite and to grow roots deep into the soil, replenishing the soil as well."

Overgrazing a Profitability Pitfall

If producers choose to graze a pasture more than once in a growing season, he says it's crucial that they rest that pasture between grazing incidents so that the green solar panel opportunity, whereby plants create nutrients by harvesting the sun's energy through photosynthesis, is maximized. In an effort to increase profitability by reducing when feeding starts, Lastiwka says producers sometimes overgraze their pastures by leaving animals on them too late into the fall.

"The joke we use is that the cows are left to graze fresh air and sunshine," he says. "Grazing it into the ground to extend your grazing season is the worst thing you can do for profitability in the future. The reality is we are choosing to graze it in a way that we lose some of the more productive and diverse species from the mix leaving us with grazing tolerant species that tend to be less productive, have shallower root systems, are more drought prone, start growing later in the spring and stop growing earlier in the year.

"All of that comes from overgrazing, which, to me, is re-biting a plant before it has had time to recover nutrients lost in the last grazing incident."

A decision to extend the grazing season on overgrazed pastures, in hopes of cutting winter feed expenses, comes at a cost that's evident the following growing season and for years to come.

"If we are going to leave animals out cleaning up those pastures, they're also reducing the number of tillers or plant density in earlier growth that we would be seeing next year," he says. "It's important for producers to realize that you can't get more out of pastures unless you give more to them."

Riparian Fencing a Management Tool

And that doesn't mean completely removing sensitive areas from a grazing system. Lastiwka feels that riparian fencing should be seen as a tool that allows for better management of these highly productive areas. He says if producers understand the natural cycles of riparian areas, that knowledge will help them best utilize those resources for grazing. For example, historically, the grazing patterns of nomadic herds were a factor which helped to create the prairies and grasslands as we know them today. Fencing riparian areas completely out of a grazing system can be detrimental because it actually works against the natural cycle of the area.

Pick a time to graze and set a target for residual forage.

"We've seen land where there's hardly any new growth until very late in the spring and summer because the density, the mass of dead material that's grown and fallen over in these areas, is so great it prevents the growth of new tillers," he explains. "And that's not a green solar panel that's capturing sunlight, building strong root systems in the soil and allowing for filtration of nutrients coming into it. To me, it limits its ability to function as a filter and ends up being a contaminant.

"In the past, when they're continually accessed, they're degraded. But when they're sporadically accessed with proper recovery in between, they're regenerated."

Lastiwka advises producers to pick the time to graze and to set a target for the amount of residual they want left behind. Again, it all comes down to developing a system of planning — acting, monitoring and revising plans to make desired out comes happen -- that's based on the specific environment, plants and variable weather conditions of a region.

EFP a Starting Point for Grazing System Development

And producers working on developing their grazing systems can rely on a number of resources to help them along the way. He says completing an Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) can help producers look at their operations in a completely different light, can open doors to discussion and can strengthen the sustainability of the entire farm operation. He recommends the web site, which addresses a variety of issues relevant to producers. He also strongly encourages producers to take advantage of the resources available by being a member of forage and applied research associations throughout the province.

"It's a luxury we have," Lastiwka says. "Alberta has a set of producer organizations with leading edge producers caring and leading the way with critical thought within their organization. They're a resource that's invaluable because of the openness and the sharing that occurs between members of these associations".

February 2013

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