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In-depth examinations of the biology and benefits of grazing plants and different grazing strategies accompany detailed plans for paddock and fencing set-ups, livestock watering, and effective methods for dealing with common pasture problems throughout the seasons, from mud to drought. For readers invested in pasture improvement strategies that offer environmental benefits beyond better meat and dairy, including carbon sequestration, erosion prevention, increased pollinator resources and wildlife habitat, and improved water quality, Managing Pasture is an approachable, accessible guide to creating and caring for the grassland that feeds animals and future generations.
To my family and neighbors who have supported me through good times and bad, and to all the people who have inspired me and taught me along the way
Introduction: The Past and Promise of Pasture
Part 1: Increasing Pasture Production & Profitability
1. What Makes a Pastured Livestock Operation Profitable
2. Why Grazing Plants Behave the Way They Do
3. How Animals Digest & Utilize Forage
4. Improving Pasture Productivity: Minerals, Water & Sunlight
5. Providing Year-Round Grazing
6. Determining a Proper Stocking Rate
7. Grazing Systems & Management
Part 2: Selecting & Managing Pasture Plants
8. Perennial Warm-Season Grasses
9. Perennial Cool-Season Grasses, Legumes & Forbs
10. Annual Forages
11. Silvopastures & Browse Plants
Part 3: Solving Practical Problems of Pasture Management
12. Pasture Fencing
13. Developing Drinking Water
14. Dealing with Too Much or Too Little Water
Part 4: Managing Pasture for Different Livestock Species
15. Beef & Dairy Cattle
16. Sheep & Goats
18. Swine & Poultry
Part 5: Increasing the Ecosystem Services of Pasture
19. Honey Bees & Other Pollinators
21. Pastures, Climate, Water & People
Conclusion: Final Words of Pasture Wisdom
Metric Conversion Charts
List of Tables
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The Past and Promise of Pasture
Why is the average acre of corn so productive and the average acre of pasture not so productive?
In 2017 David Hula of Charles City, Virginia, set a new world-record corn yield of 542 bushels an acre. This impressive feat received a considerable amount of attention and press, and deservedly so. It restores my faith in our country when someone such as a farmer, who actually produces a useful product for the human race, gets some attention. To put this farmer's accomplishment into perspective, the national average corn yield in 2015 was 168.8 bushels an acre, so Hula's yield was more than three times the national average.
It is also impressive to look at the progress we as a country have made in corn yield — and corn production technology — in the past century. It's a very different story with pasture.
Grass versus Corn: The Roots of the Matter
Let's go back in time to explore how our experts and our technology have focused on improving corn and grain production but largely ignored grass and other livestock forage.
History of Corn Production 101
In 1900, corn was planted in 40-inch rows, at 40 inches apart within the row, to allow weed control via cross cultivation by a horse-drawn implement (the average width of a horse being 40 inches). This meant the corn population was around 3,900 plants per acre. The genetics of the day were all inbred, open-pollinated landraces. Fertility for corn was often provided by plowing down a prior crop of clover for nitrogen and perhaps an application of barnyard manure. There were no insecticides, no herbicides, no fungicides. Weeds, diseases, and insects all took their toll.
In 1900, the national average corn yield was 29 bushels per acre.
In 1960, corn was planted with a tractor in 30-inch rows (the standard width of a tractor tire), and populations of new hybrid varieties had increased to about 16,000 seeds per acre. Weed control was achieved by a combination of tillage and the new herbicides 2,4-D and atrazine. Fertility was supplied by synthetically produced urea and anhydrous ammonia, mined potassium chloride, and mined phosphate rock treated with sulfuric acid. DDT controlled insects.
In 1960, the national average corn yield was about 58 bushels per acre.
In the early years of the 21st century, corn is typically planted at 32,000 genetically modified hybrid plants per acre. Seeds are often planted without tillage, and weeds are controlled entirely by chemicals, since the corn is genetically engineered to resist the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate. The crop is protected from insect damage by the plant itself, because it contains a gene, obtained from a soil bacterium, that makes the plant produce a natural insecticide. All field operations are guided by global positioning units that prevent skips and overlaps in the field.
In 2015, the national average corn yield was 168.8 bushels per acre.
History of Beef Production 101
Now let us contrast the history of corn production with the production of beef cows on pasture in my area.
In 1900 in north central Kansas, cows were turned out to pasture in early May and given 6 acres of native grass apiece. They were left on this pasture until the corn was harvested in fall, after which the cows were brought home and the calves were weaned. The cows were pastured on cornstalks for a couple of months, then fed hay for 4 months.
In 1960, cows were turned out to pasture in early May and given 6 acres of native grass apiece. They were left on this pasture until the corn was harvested in fall, after which the cows were brought home and the calves were weaned. The cows were pastured on cornstalks for a couple of months, then fed hay for 4 months.
In 2015, cows were turned out to pasture in early May and given 6 acres of native grass apiece. They were left on this pasture until the corn was harvested in fall, after which the cows were brought home and the calves were weaned. The cows were pastured on cornstalks for a couple of months, then fed hay for 4 months.
In other words, pasture management has not changed in more than 100 years.
Is it little wonder a pasture is considered a "low-producing acre" and that so much of it has been plowed up to be converted to "better use"?
And yet, I will contend that pasture has more potential for yield and for profit than the current darling of American agriculture, corn.
Management and Productivity
David Hula's record yield of 542 bushels per acre, at 56 pounds per bushel, produced an astonishing 30,352 pounds of grain per acre, or more than 15 tons. It is safe to assume that his stalks produced another 4 tons per acre of biomass, although Hula did not measure this. Consider this, however: those corn plants, sown in April, did not reach full size until June and then probably "black-layered" (reached full maturity) by early September. This means that there were only about 90 days of fully utilized sunlight on that acre of David Hula's record-breaking corn.
In case you need a refresher, there are 365 days in a year, and the sun shines on most of them. There is enough heat to grow some plant species in Charles City, Virginia, for up to 10 months out of the year. But Hula's corn achieved that yield in just 3 months of fully utilized sunlight and heat. What is the true potential of an acre if the entire growing season's worth of sunlight is fully utilized? What if sunlight could be captured and converted into plant material every single day that the temperature is above freezing?
Why is the average acre of corn so productive and the average acre of pasture is not? The acre of corn on Hula's property received no more rain and no more sunlight than an acre of pasture just down the road. Why does the pasture not produce as much vegetative yield as the corn? Obviously, I am trying to lead you to the conclusion that it is because we do not manage pasture with the same intensity as we manage corn.
The Chapters You Will Not Find in This Book
Time is precious, and I hate wasting it, whether it's yours or mine. There are topics you will find in almost all books on pasture and forage management that you will not find in this one; I consider those topics to be largely a waste of time, because they revolve around practices that reduce profitability.
Nothing on Making Hay or Silage
There are no chapters in this book on how to make hay or how to make silage. The first reason for this is that the knowledge of how to make hay and silage is quite commonplace. You may already be an expert haymaker or expert silage maker. If not, and you live in farm or ranch country, odds are you are already surrounded by people who know how to make hay and silage. Finally, this information is easily available from traditional university Extension Services. A two-page brochure on making hay or silage can be googled and downloaded in a few minutes for free. You didn't need to buy this book for that.
The second reason is that I consider the two processes themselves to be a waste of time, and an even bigger waste of money. As discussed in the upcoming chapter on profitability, a major cause of low profitability in a livestock operation is the percentage of feed that comes from hay or silage. This is particularly the case if the livestock owner produces the hay or silage. I would rather focus on practices that reduce your need for these feedstocks.
I admit that I love the smell of silage, and I have always enjoyed feeding it, but production is incredibly expensive and labor intensive. You spend a lot of money hauling around a material that is two-thirds water by weight, loses at least 20 percent of its energy content during fermentation, and begins to rot as soon as you start feeding it. Add in that its harvest leaves the ground bare and exposed, and you have a lot of reasons to not put up silage.
Hay is better, but not much. The respiration that occurs during drying burns up a lot of the energy that was in the plant at cutting. With typical leaf shattering during baling and average storage losses, you typically end up feeding only about half the nutrients in hay that were in the plant at cutting time.
Grazing has often been maligned as being an inefficient way to harvest, but it need not be. Well-managed grazing can, in fact, be much more efficient at getting nutrients into animals from an acre of land than any form of mechanical harvest. If you figure the cost per pound of nutrient delivered to animal, there is no comparison.
Forget haymaking. Forget silage. Learn to manage grazing. If you need hay or silage, there are plenty of people willing to sell it to you at a price less than their cost of production.
Nothing on Chemical Weed Control
There is no chapter in this book on chemical weed control in pastures. Again, there is a common body of knowledge on how to control weeds with herbicides. This is because there is no shortage of people who will happily sell you a jug of herbicide — and even more happily put it in their sprayer and do the spraying for you. Every state university Extension Service annually publishes an updated guide to using herbicides to control weeds in pastures. I used to have the contents of the one published in Kansas committed to memory.
As I journeyed through my professional career, however, and had the privilege of interacting with some of the world's most progressive grazing managers, I noticed a common thread. None of them showed the least concern about weeds. Had they sprayed their weeds out of existence and no longer had to deal with them? No. They managed their pastures so that weeds had a hard time competing, and they managed their animals to consume the weeds they did have.
If the "weeds" are eaten and provide nutrition, are they still weeds? And if they are, why would I spend money to eliminate them, and why suffer the collateral damage to valuable legumes and forbs due to the herbicides? And why spend even more money on nitrogen fertilizer to recover productivity lost because the legumes are gone from my pastures? And why then have to buy hay during the next drought because my pastures are now devoid of the deep-rooted forbs that would otherwise provide feed when the topsoil gets dry?
I grew up thinking good pasture managers had weed-free pastures. Now I believe excellent pasture managers find ways to convert weeds into money.
Consider this: the most widely planted pasture grass in the United States is Kentucky 31 tall fescue. The "31" stands for 1931, the year the variety was developed. In 1931, most farms lacked indoor plumbing, telephones, and electricity. Today, nearly every farm has running water, cellular phones, electricity, and the Internet, and virtually no one today plants corn genetics from 1931 — yet 1930s-era practice is the status quo in pasture management.
No other area of agriculture (or society, for that matter) still relies on the methods and materials of a century ago, but that is the norm in livestock pasture management. The national average of beef produced per acre of pasture has remained static for decades.
In 1991, an alfalfa-based pasture in Kentucky produced more than 1,354 pounds of beef per acre, 27 times the estimated national average. That amazing improvement 30 years ago over the status quo was not accomplished with high-tech, cutting-edge techniques only made recently available, but with information and technology available for decades to all of us in the livestock industry. Imagine what we could do with all the information that has been generated since 1991!
The Thrills of Managing Pasture
There are two reasons that pasture management excites me so much.
- 1.There is so much unrealized potential for improvement. A perennial pasture can have a full canopy operating at peak photosynthesis weeks before David Hula takes his planter out of the shed in the spring, and it can continue that photosynthesis for months after Hula's yields have made national headlines again. All of agriculture is the conversion of sunlight into a useful product, and the more days of the year this can be done, the greater the amount of useful product we can produce.
- 2.This improvement can be realized without all the expensive inputs required for Hula's incredible corn yield. I contend that not only can we produce more yield from an acre of pasture than we can from an acre of corn, but that it will cost far less than an acre of corn.
Much of the increase in corn yield since 1900 has come from better (and more expensive) equipment; more (and more expensive) fertilizer; more (and more expensive) chemical control of weeds, diseases, and insects; and more (and more expensive) seed per acre. A pasture, on the other hand, can produce or recycle its own fertility, produce for decades from one seeding, and fight off weeds, insects, and diseases on its own.
There should be little or no need for fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides, nor need of annual outlay for seed, nor the diesel and depreciation inherent in annual planting and mechanized harvest. In case you haven't already done the math, an acre that produces more revenue than an acre of corn, at far less input cost than an acre of corn, would be infinitely more profitable than an acre of corn.
The Bigger Picture
But production and profit are only a small part of the picture, though they are critical to the farmer or rancher. Well-managed pasture has the ability to mitigate or prevent many of the gravest threats to human existence as we know it: famine, soil erosion, unreliable water supply, climate change, wildlife depletion, and many, many others.
Food production. Famine, of course, is a huge deal. Jonathan Swift said, "Whoever can make two ears of corn grow where only one grew before, deserves more than the whole race of politicians put together." Since we live in a world where protein (not calories) is the most widespread nutrient deficiency, I would think that the person who can produce 2 pounds of meat where only one was produced before deserves even more than the corn farmer.
Erosion control. Well-managed pasture can almost eliminate soil erosion and can even increase the rate of topsoil creation. This will preserve our ability to produce food in the future. Soil erosion at any level should never be tolerated.
Water quality improvement. Water moving through a pasture will be cleaner than the rapid runoff from poorly managed land, which often contains pathogenic bacteria, fertilizer, and synthetic pesticides and herbicides. This means municipalities do not need to go to extreme measures to remove pollutants from drinking water, as some Corn Belt cities such as Des Moines have had to do.
Flood and drought mitigation. Well-managed pastures can mitigate both droughts and floods by increasing the infiltration of rainwater into soil, so that there is no rush of water downstream immediately after a rain, but rather a sustained trickle from flowing springs. Since floods cost more money than any other natural disaster, this can be a major benefit to society. The sustained trickle means there will be stream water during droughts, so municipalities downstream can still supply drinking water to their citizens, rather than truck in water, as has happened in some places during severe drought.
Carbon sequestration. It is commonly assumed that climate change is occurring or will occur due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. No other agriculture system has more potential for sequestering atmospheric carbon than well-managed pasture, particularly if that pasture is established on cropland.
Habitat improvement. Well-managed pastures do not displace wildlife habitat; they are wildlife habitat. It is completely unnecessary to preserve vast tracts of land at taxpayer expense to ensure the future of wildlife. Well-managed pasture is perfectly capable of producing a crop of meat or milk at the same time it produces a crop of wildlife and can be a credit rather than a burden on the tax rolls.
But we cannot accomplish these feats by using the techniques of the past. We will need better ways of management. Most of what is contained in this book is neither radical nor revolutionary. You will find no magic potions or gifts from space aliens that magically achieve mega-yielding pasture. What you will find are real-world, practical techniques that are proven to vastly increase yield — some of recent discovery and others that have been known but largely ignored for most of a century. Please read on, learn these techniques for yourself, and then go forth and make productive pasture.
As you may have already deduced, I did not write this book because I wanted to restate all the books and bulletins on pasture management I have read throughout my life. I wrote this book because so many of the most innovative and intelligent ideas about pasture management — ideas developed by dozens of creative people I have been privileged to know — should be in print for the good of the planet but never have been.
Part 1Increasing Pasture Production & Profitability
Proper grazing management requires an understanding of what makes plants grow, how plants respond to grazing, how much of the plant to graze at any given time, how many animals to place on an area for a given length of time, how to provide for animals through the seasons, how the animal digests and converts the forage into animal product, and, most of all, how to juggle all these factors in a way that can make money.
1What Makes a Pastured Livestock Operation Profitable
Of all the ways to lose money, the saying goes, gambling may be the fastest, but investing in cattle is the most guaranteed. Fortunately, there is almost always a way to vastly improve the profitability of any grazing livestock enterprise, because the average level of grazing management is — to put it bluntly — poor. As you proceed through this book, I hope that you will find hundreds of ideas that can drastically improve profit on your own operation.
I started college as an engineering major, chasing the money. I did not really want to be an engineer, but the military rejected me due to my severe allergies, and college was the next-best option. I had to major in something, and with no idea what I wanted to do, I simply looked at the earnings for recent graduates. Engineering was at the top of the list, so engineering it was.
As it turned out, engineering was not what I was interested in. All of my roommates were agriculture majors, and I listened to them talk about what they covered in class every day and argue about which cattle breeds were best, which tractor brand was best, what soil-management method was best. The different ways to solve an integration problem in calculus were not nearly so interesting.
A Light Bulb Goes On
I grew up on a farm, but all it ever seemed to be was endless work. I never really thought about what I was doing or why. All of a sudden, agriculture had become interesting to this college freshman. More specifically, the integration of science with agriculture to find better ways of producing food became fascinating. I had always been drawn to science and nature, but I had never really associated farming with either.
Just out of interest, I began taking a few agriculture classes, and since I had always enjoyed working with our cattle more than "dirt farming," I started out with animal science.
I remember the first day of Beef Science class. The professor strongly emphasized calculating breakevens and cost of production. He put on the board the average costs per weaned calf, by category. Every category except one, combined, added up to 20 percent of all costs. That one remaining category, feed costs, made up the other 80 percent. The professor said that was why they made animal science majors take a couple of agronomy courses, so that we could learn to raise cheaper feed.
A light bulb went on in my head. If all of my animal science classes covered the 20 percent, and agronomy classes covered the 80 percent, perhaps if I wanted to raise cattle I should change my major. I walked over to the agronomy building, introduced myself to the first professor I found, and the rest is history — or at least my own personal story.
Unfortunately, ranching is not the most lucrative career out there; in fact, it is one of the few jobs where the average income is negative. Most ranchers lose money for their efforts, but still there seems to be no shortage of people wanting to enter the profession.
Other livestock businesses tend to be more profitable than beef cow–calf operations, but all too many of those also tend to run more red ink than black. Note: this is with an average level of management.
That is the bad news. Read on for the good news.
The Secret to Profitability
“In Managing Pasture, Dale Strickler offers plenty of first-hand guidance for both seasoned and novice livestock producers. His personal experience with what works and what doesn’t makes this a must-read for the range manager who wants to maximize profitability in a way that is best for the land and for the livestock.” — Bill Spiegel, Successful Farming
- On Sale
- Apr 30, 2019
- Page Count
- 288 pages