Here’s what to look for in pasture monitoring

Source: R.P. ‘Doc’ Cooke for Beef Producer | Feb. 28, 2019

I do not know when pasture walks were first instituted by mankind, but since the Egyptians were worshiping dung beetles over 4,000 years ago I would guess that farmers and at least some beef producers have been looking down and paying attention for quite some time.

However, monitoring of anything other than the cattle, feed troughs and storage units was never built into my formal education.

Still, once I was exposed to it, doubling and even tripling profitability while increasing the land resource, water quality and wildlife and having fun doing it caught my attention. After that, my interest in pasture conditions and dung beetles and soil health naturally zoomed up.

Pasture monitoring tells us what’s happening and shortens the learning curve. With one or more interested sidekicks, pasture walks and monitoring are fun.

Recently we were pasture walking and a young man who works for a client asked me what we were looking for as I dug into the soil. I am not sure my answer was more than a shallowsummary, but here’s a little bit more

Monitoring indicators may be divided into two major groups:

  • Short-term indicators
  • Long-term indicators

Short-term indicators are changes that are happening over periods of days, weeks and months and maybe five-year periods in the pasture. We normally pay the greatest attention to short-term indicators and they are divided into groups with emphasis on:

  • Above the soil surface before and after grazing.
  • Below the soil surface after and before grazing.

You’ll have likely noticed that I emphasize the importance of complete plant recovery before grazing and the limiting or elimination of partial plant rest before the cattle are brought back in. Progress in land management is all about time and timing. Remember, high animal density on completely recovered forage for short periods of time is the goal. In addition, the faster the grass is growing, the faster the cattle and the back-wire needs to be moving.

In front of the cattle, in the completely recovered forage, we monitor for:

  • Approximate palatable cow days per acre (each 25 pounds dry matter). In that we try to meter the amount of green plant life; the amount of red, brown, yellow and white; major species components; and the amount of less-palatable and/or non-palatable plants.
  • The standability and the height and density of the canopy (biomass)
  • Condition of the seed formation of plants we would like to increase
  • Vigor of the plant life
  • Life on top of and at ground level
  • Condition and amount of litter
  • Bare spots, bare ground
  • Undesirable plants and their density and extent
  • Remaining manure and lack of decomposition and incorporation since the last graze
  • Cattle condition, fill and attitude.

Experience, husbandry and science tells us that plants growing in high-moisture overly developed soils are reduced in mineral and energy content. This describes our area. Cattle that we manage need to be full all the time. They need to work hard and make high impact in high densities, but they do not need to be empty. Daily and/or multiple daily cattle moves result in all the boys and girls becoming more satisfied.

Behind the cattle, pasture monitoring gets to be a lot of fun, especially when guests are visiting. We normally start with where the cattle have grazed and take a good look on through five days back with emphasis on:

  • Manure placement every 3 to 6 feet
  • Manure and dung beetle activity
  • Volume of litter and its diversity
  • Plants not grazed or trampled
  • Signs of plant regrowth
  • Presence and volume of fly larvae (maggots) four and five days behind the cattle
  • Other activity at ground level — turkeys, other birds, ants, earthworms.

Most of our below-surface monitoring begins five to 10 days behind the cattle. We dig in areas where manure is starting to smell like good rich soil with no stink. We spend considerable time seeing what is happening with most emphasis on:

  • Manure – How many days to get the stink out? When are earthworms present and active and fat? How many days before the manure pies are hard to find and mostly incorporated into the soil?
  • Legume and forb regrowth – Following severe grazing, legumes and some forbs have the advantage over grasses. This is normal and mostly good as they are preparing the soil for future grass growth with nitrogen fixation and attention.
  • Soil aggregation – Good soil is full of air and a little greasy and sticky, yet sponge-like. Black and brown soil to increasing depth and growing is a plus.
  • Root depth and activity – We like seeing roots growing deep into the subsoil. This indicates that the water and mineral cycle are functioning at a goodly level.

The truth is that if we take care of land and work to grow the soil, the system that includes our soil, plants and cattle will provide for us. Mining of the farm needs to be old history beef producers. Consider rereading and applying the points I have made. When you are hooked into the natural model, monitoring is fun and uplifting. Days on the pasture when the sun is shining can become really good days.

Written for “Beef Producer” by R.P. ‘Doc’ Cooke

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