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What Interest Rate is Your Pasture Paying?

04 September 2009

Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development

Most pasture plants are in debt this year as the dry conditions and cold spring put most plants behind in their spring "loan payments" to their root systems.

Overgrazed plants had a further set back. They are operating at credit card interest rates on fully borrowed operating loans. Add to that early dormancy due to the very dry conditions which in many areas stopped plant growth and even caused plants to go dormant.

These plants had to tap into their "operating loan" and will have more 'root debt', to pay back at "operating loan interest" (if not overgrazed) when growth starts again. The solution is to pay "plant debt" down through good pasture management decision-making, starting now with no overgrazing.

"Overgrazing is leaving animals on pasture too long or bringing them back too soon," says Grant Lastiwka,grazing/forages/beef specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

"When animals regraze the regrowth before plants have had a chance to fully recover lost root reserves from previous grazing, or dormant season period, they're overgrazed.

"If pastures are overgrazed they will continue to pay high interest until grass plants have reached the 3-leaf stage of new growth or, in my opinion, even more growth. After the 3-leaf stage, plant root systems are fully recovered from the last grazing. When the next well-managed grazing incident occurs, the roots will be able to sustain it."

If moisture and rest come right away there may be enough time for grazed pastures to recover this fall. If recovery doesn't happen this year, it must happen with good spring-time management next year.

Three examples of overgrazing at 'credit card interest rates' of repayment:

  1. extending the grazing season by leaving animals out on a pasture in late summer and fall when little growth is occurring and regrazing all regrowth is happening until they run out of grass and have to be pulled
  2. animals are returned to a paddock in a rotational grazing system before plants have had a long enough rest period for full recovery (time varies biologically and not in calendar time)
  3. animals are turned out in spring on growing pastures before plants have reached the 3-leaf stage or more of new development

"Grazing during early spring prior to range readiness. deprives grass plants of needed leaf area and results in reductions in grass growth, herbage production and economic returns (Manske, 2001. Grazing Before Grass is Ready). Hugo Gross, forage scientist from Ag Canada, Brandon, MB, said, "Turning animals out one day too early in the spring means a loss of three grazing days in the fall."

To maintain a healthy tame or native pasture, grazing in spring should start only after the 3 - 3.5 leaf stage of plant development (Manske 1999a).

"Rest in the spring is the most crucial and cheapest rejuvenation for hammered pastures," says Lastiwka.

"As a general rule, spring grazings on these types of pastures should be two to four weeks later than normal and then be only a light grazing. Couple this with suitable rests between grazings in the summer. These rests need to be long enough for plants to regrow three to three and a half new leaves. In droughts, regrowth is slower so rest periods need to be longer. Also the more residual growth left after any grazing the faster cattle can be brought back to graze again."

Management practices for adequate pasture recovery time:

  • seed a winter annual before the end of the first week in September so that when moisture comes there will be fall and spring growth to graze for early turnout
  • look into renting pasture
  • community pastures will have openings for next spring, apply in early January for a spot
  • don't keep yearlings back to graze, or sell some cows so less pasture is needed
  • wait until after the 3-leaf stage of new growth in spring before turning animals out onto pasture - if continuous grazing this is too early, so wait two weeks longer

"As tough as times are in the livestock business, we cannot afford to dig ourselves into a hole we cannot get out of," says Lastiwka.

"Having highly productive pastures to rely on are the key to trying to survive in the cow/calf or yearling grazing business."

August 2009

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