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The Finer Points of Summer Grazing

14 August 2008

KANSAS, US - Beef producers┬┤ recent, challenging financial climate has many taking a closer look at the way they operate. One thing producers could consider rethinking is their summer grazing system, a Kansas State University researcher said.

"No matter what system is used, the stocking rate is key," said Bob Gillen, head of K-State´s Western Agricultural Research Centers. "When considering the number of cow-calf pairs a producer can put on summer pasture, it´s important to consider the fewest acres a grazing animal needs to meet performance targets. Plus, the animal´s performance needs to be balanced with what the pasture requires to maintain a desirable and vigorous plant community."


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"In a perfect world, 75 to 90 percent rangeland and 10 to 25 percent introduced forages is a good ratio"
Bob Gillen, head of K-State´s Western Agricultural Research Centers.

Speaking at K-State´s 2008 Beef Conference, Aug. 7-8 in Manhattan, Gillen described three types of grazing systems -- continuous, simple; and intensive.

A continuous system gives all of the cattle access to all grazing land on a ranch.

"Although continuous grazing has a negative connotation, I´m not convinced it´s all bad," Gillen said. "It can maximize an animal´s performance because the animal has the ability to select what it will graze."

A simple system involves splitting grazing land into three to five smaller pastures and splitting the animals among those pastures.

For example, an owner might split his pasture into three parcels, said Gillen, who is a rangeland scientist. The owner could split his cattle among the three from May 1 to July 15 and then move them off one and split them between the others from July 15 to Oct. 1, giving the first parcel a break. Each year a different parcel could get that break to help keep its grasses healthy.

An intensive system means splitting one´s pasture into eight or more segments. In this case, however, the producer puts all of he cattle on one parcel for a short period of time and then moves them all to the next parcel and so on. The short periods could be from a day to a week, more or less.

Gillen said a review of numerous studies conducted on rangelands throughout the western United States showed that continuous grazing systems are better than simple systems are for cattle performance. In contrast, simple systems show advantages for the health of the grass,

But, no matter what grazing system is used, he said, it is important for producers to:

  • Utilize pastures moderately for any given grazing event;

  • Allow rest for pastures during the growing season;

  • Avoid repeated use of pastureland during the same time period over several years;

  • Avoid placing cattle on pastures that are long rested; and

  • Avoid large diet shifts for the cattle.

Gillen encouraged Beef Conference participants to consider "introduced forages," which often exhibit rapid growth over short periods of time and respond better than native forages do to fertilizer and herbicides. They also can handle higher grazing pressure for short periods.

Examples of introduced forages that work well in Kansas, he said, include smooth brome in the northeast and eastern portions of the state, bermudagrass in the southeast, and such annual forages as sudangrass and wheat pasture.

Combining several different forages is a way to lengthen the window of potential for rapid gains, the scientist said. It may also decrease feed purchases.

When using complementary systems - which combine introduced and native forages - it is important to balance the two.

"In a perfect world, 75 to 90 percent rangeland and 10 to 25 percent introduced forages is a good ratio," Gillen said.

Burning pasture during the spring "burning season" is something that more producers outside the Flint Hills should consider, he added. The practice reduces invasive plant species, particularly eastern redcedar, and promotes the growth of desirable native grasses.

"Sometimes producers wonder if fertilizing native pastureland is a good idea. The answer to that is no," he said. "Fertilizing tends to promote weed growth and changes the balance of native pasture and weeds. In today´s economic climate, it is certainly not practical."

Weed control should be done as needed, rather than regularly, Gillen said.

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