Farmer-to-Farmer Transfer of Knowledge About Rotational Grazing
There is a need for more practical information for producers who are considering management intensive grazing (MIG) as an economically viable, environmentally sound alternative to purchased feed inputs. Producers often communicate more effectively with each other than they do with other agricultural information servers. They often look to other producers as their most credible information source, particularly when they are considering trying new agricultural techniques.
The main objective of this project was to form a network of graziers with differing amounts of experience to cooperatively define and address knowledge gaps. The following process was established to obtain that objective:
1.) Hold quarterly farm meetings to discuss management intensive grazing and to share observations regarding different grazing systems.
2.) Establish transect lines (in at least one managed area on each farm) to be used for baseline and comparison measurements throughout the study.
3.) Condition score cattle quarterly to evaluate the quality of the forages as feedstuffs.
4.) Utilize NIRS fecal sampling to assign feed value to forages utilized in management intensive grazing.
5.) Share research results at conventions and meetings, and host field days to demonstrate management intensive grazing.
The four participants of this project formed a network to fill the various information gaps in their operations. Three of the participants had seven, three and two years experience, respectively, in management intensive grazing. The fourth participant was launching a grazing program in conjunction with the start of the project. Two of the participants raise beef cattle, one has a dairy and one has beef, sheep and goats. They shared knowledge from their own experiences, computer programs, videos and publications in 16 meetings during the project year to help each operation attain the highest quality forage with the least expenditure of money and labor.
Besides providing an opportunity for information exchange, the meetings were also used for pasture walks during which the participants collected data about plant diversity and forage availability. The plant inventories conducted on each walk were compared to previous inventories.
Along with conducting visual observations, they also condition scored cattle and collected forage and manure samples during the pasture walks. The manure samples were analyzed by Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy (NIRS) to evaluate diet quality. Forages were tested for feed value and mineral content. The condition scores of the cattle were recorded on the same charts as the manure analysis for correlation purposes. A module in the Grazing Lands Application computer program was used to recommend supplements.
Changes in pasture management were made according to the condition scores and the results of the data sampling on each operation.
Although such routine tasks can be done by a producer at any time, this project used them as a way of opening discussions for the group. The participants also benefited from the critical observations of the group since change is more evident to someone who has not seen a particular farm in three months than it is to the producer who sees it everyday.
The data supplied by the tests provided more information than most cattle producers have about their operations. Interested producers could request the necessary forms for manure and forage analysis directly from labs, follow the collection procedures and produce usable information about their own farms. Using charts for beef nutrition requirements available from county Extension offices, ranchers could see how much of the required nutrition their forages were providing. In some Southern states local NRCS offices are already utilizing the Grazing Lands Application program, and others will be able to supply this service soon.
Utilizing the data, the project participants discovered ways to improve their operations and to refine the testing process for maximum efficiency.
Based on their year-long experiences they anticipate that during the growing season, bimonthly or quarterly sampling will provide adequate information about forage quality. During slow growth periods, particularly in winter under stockpile conditions, weekly testing will probably be needed for the first year or two to define the pattern of quality on a given farm. They expect that a spot check every two to four weeks should be sufficient after that, depending on the level of management.
They found that optimum performance was achieved when the plane of nutrition was level. Gradual changes were not as detrimental as abrupt changes in the diet. As they became more experienced with sampling they developed a feel for the expected results based on the appearance and texture of the manure. This kind of experience can reduce the amount of testing to critical periods or when a different class of stock is added to the herd.
The participants discovered that the level of management is a matter of personal choice. Some producers consider two to five day rotations and only 10 to 20 paddocks sufficient. Others believe that the steady, high quality nutrition necessary for dairy or stocker profits requires daily (or more frequent) moves, which in turn, require more paddocks or more temporary subdividing of existing paddocks.
They found that conducting a forage species inventory at least every quarter helped them better understand what is available and how well and when the stock was utilizing it.
During the project new questions surfaced that the group would like answered. They would like to know more about the mineral, protein and energy values as well as the palatability for all the potential forages throughout the seasons. They also want to find out if quality and tonnage would increase if herds were managed to stay within the rapid growth range of forages.
Economic advantages of very intense management, such as daily or more frequent moves, need to be studied. Based on their experiences, the project participants think that a management procedure based on such frequent moves could replace feedlots as a finishing technique or could speed up calf growth without damaging the cow in a cow/calf operation.
Outreach was steady and extensive throughout the project. The pasture walks and meetings were announced to the public through mailings and in farm/general interest publications. The communication efforts paid off in the form of several visitors at the meetings and unofficial participants being added to the network as the project progressed.
Field days at the farms were expanded beyond education about the project to include herd dog demonstrations, bar-be-ques and other activities. Experts in irrigation, grazing cell management, fencing, mixed species grazing and other related topics gave presentations so that attendees could spend an entire day learning about all aspects of management intensive grazing. Approximately 80 people attended the field days. The participants also made numerous appearances at farm shows and seminars throughout the South.