By Trevor Lennox, PAg, Range Management Extension Specialist, Swift Current
Perennial pastures are a critical resource in the cattle industry. Behind most cow/calf operations are many acres of perennial forage crops. During dry periods, the productivity of these perennials can be severely affected in a negative way. The productivity of perennial pastures tends to be more affected than the productivity of most annual cropland. This often results in many ranchers relying on annual crops, such as greenfeed, to help manage through the dry years. It is no secret that healthier pastures are more productive through dry spells due to healthier root systems. Over the last couple of decades, many producers have successfully increased the health of their perennial pastures through improved pasture and rangeland management.
An important part of managing perennial pastures is to have a long-term grazing management plan. This requires having a clear understanding of forage production, setting realistic production goals, using effective grazing strategies, and implementing a timely response to forage availability and environmental changes. An important part of this plan could also include a drought management plan so that long-term health and productivity of the grassland is not compromised by short-term dry conditions.
Grazing managers have two very important tools at their disposal: these are the grazing period, in which cattle are in a particular field or paddock, and the rest/recovery period, in which cattle are removed to allow the grassland to recover from the grazing event. Both of these periods are important components of grassland management. In order to maximize grassland health and productivity, it is ideal to have short grazing periods and long rest/recovery periods. When building longer, effective rest/recovery periods into a grazing system, many producers will rely upon additional cross-fencing and/or additional water development to help accomplish this.
Some producers may ask how long the grazing period and the rest/recovery period should be; these are not straight-forward questions to answer as there are many underlying factors that need to be considered. What can be stated is that having only one or two paddocks per herd for an entire grazing season doesn’t provide enough rest for the plants. A general suggestion would be to have a minimum of three to four paddocks to allow for a moderate amount of rest for pastures to remain healthy and productive. However, for those individuals looking to maximize the rest/recovery period for their pastures, some producers have developed 10 to 12 paddocks per herd for a grazing season, while some producers have gone to daily moves. It is important to realize there are many factors that go into designing a grazing system. What works for one grazing manager on native grassland in southern Saskatchewan may be very different from someone grazing tame pastures in the Parkland area.
For additional information related to pasture and rangeland management, contact your local range management extension specialist or call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.