Grazing Basics and Animal Behavior Discussed at First Grazing Roundtable
Posted: July 2, 2012
Traditionally, beef, sheep, and dairy are low margin enterprises. Profitability can be increased by maintaining lower feed costs and effectively marketing the final product. Luckily, there is a growing market for local, pasture-raised meats. The key, then, is to efficiently utilize pasture. High quality pasture is a low cost feed, and is often more palatable than a good quality hay.
Is pasture-raised livestock lower labor? Maybe, but probably just as much. Instead of moving manure, producers who intensively rotational graze to earn the greatest return on their pastures will spend just as much time, if not more, moving and building temporary fence. The production risk may be higher because of dependence on the weather, but market risk can be lowered by direct marketing or selling a frozen product instead of relying on commodity pricing which typically hovers around break-even costs.
Not all livestock are genetically or behaviorally able to be raised on pasture. Grazers need to select low maintenance animals who do not require grain or high inputs to grow. They must make tough choices as well by sticking to a culling program, removing animals that do not perform well on pasture or those with temperament issues. A specific breed may or may not grow well on pasture, but sometimes there is just as much variation within a breed than across breeds. Dr. Soder shared research she and her colleagues have done with sheep, noting that lambs learned what to eat by observing their mothers. Also, dairy calves exposed to grass before or at weaning were much more apt to graze as adults than those calves never exposed to grass.
Dr. Soder did warn, though, that sometimes grazed animals are not as adapted to human contact. She shared that some dairy farmers said their wildest cows to milk were calves that grazed with their mother and later weaned because of the lack of human contact as calves. This, of course, may not be the same experience for everyone, but it has been the experience of some.
Grazers also may need to rely on mechanical aids to help them be profitable. These considerations include making hay during the spring surplus to store for the winter season when stockpiled forages have been exhausted, or using a dog for protection in an area with predator pressure.
Constantly thinking ahead and developing a grazing plan also help the bottom line. Successful grazers will manage for drought and regrowth between rotations, realizing they have no or minimal control over some things including pests or predators. However, grazers do have control over moving stock throughout a rotation, and adjusting the rotation based on growth. Dr. Soder displayed a simulation of “grazing” in which two pots of orchardgrass were “grazed” to 1 inch and 3.5 inches, respectively. The pot grazed to three inches grew back significantly faster
A common mistake is to manage for average forage production. If this is the case, what happens during the spring flush or summer slump? Thinking ahead and planning will help, like planning to bale certain pastures that are later in the rotation for feeding during the winter when stockpiled forages have been exhausted, or planting warm season grasses to graze during the summer slump.