The Key to Top Pasture Performance

The pasture season will be upon us as you read this article. Since commodity prices are at some of the highest levels we have seen, it is important to realize the full opportunity for pasture in your livestock enterprise in these times. What steps have you taken to maximize your pasture returns for this year?

Pasture is the lowest cost feed source available, and the opportunity for improved production is significant on most farms. Pasture gains of up to 600 lbs per acre and over 300 lbs per head have been reported to me by beef producers with a good rotational system and attention to detail on both the forage and livestock management. A well managed pasture will be very competitive with any other crop use that you might consider for that land base.

Photo of black well fed beef cattle on pasture.
Fig. 1. Fresh forage maximizes animal performance.

The key steps to maximize both forage and livestock production is to manage the forage for optimum growth and optimum bite size for the animals grazing. To get optimum growth from the forage plants they need to be in a rapid growth state for as much of the growing season as possible. Maintaining a grazing forage height between 10 cm (4 inches) and 30 cm (12 inches) will allow the plants to maintain good growth and capture all the available sunlight to drive photosynthesis. This plant height will also maintain a substantial root system that will be able to gather water and nutrients throughout the summer, and minimize a summer dormancy period should we get into hot dry weather. To maintain this level of forage growth, the pasture manager needs to move livestock to fresh grass every couple of days. If too much pasture is offered at a time then selective grazing will take place and the less desirable plants will not be grazed and will become mature.

After a plant is grazed it needs time to rest and re-grow; this is the key point of pasture management - rest and recovery.

From an animal management standpoint, maximizing bite size is the key to good productivity. Cattle bite at a rather constant rate and for about 8 hours each day. The variable that you can control is the size of the bite. By providing pasture that is the optimum size for the animal to bite (10-30 cm) you will have taken the first big step to maximize intake. The second step is to have fresh forage on offer at all times. Livestock are not going to eat forage that has been laid on or fouled with manure or urine. The longer the animals are in a given paddock, the greater the percentage of forage in that paddock that is going to be unpalatable because of what has been done to it, thus the importance of frequent moves to fresh pasture.

Fencing is the tool that will allow you to manage your livestock to provide re-growth time for the grass, and manage the quality and quantity of forage available for your livestock. Temporary or semi- permanent single or double wire electric fence will allow you to control your livestock to achieve improved pasture performance from both the forage and the livestock.

Moving livestock to fresh pasture every 1-2 days will optimize plant growth by allowing the plants adequate rest and recovery time (it takes 15-20 days to recover from grazing in the early part of the season and 30-45 days in late summer). These same 1-2 day moves will encourage optimum bite size by the livestock by providing readily available fresh forage.

This combination of readily available and high quality forage will give maximum forage production and maximum animal performance. By applying these two principals to your pasture system you will make pasture a profitable part of your farm operation.

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