By DOUG WARNOCK
For the Capital Press
As we enter the winter season and begin feeding hay, it's a time to think about extending the grazing season and shortening the winter feeding period.
Producers know that winter feed is often one of the biggest costs in operating a livestock business, sometimes as much as 60 or 70 percent of the total cost of production. Anything that can be done cost effectively to reduce the hay feeding period will help the bottom line.
There are several ways to extend the grazing season. These include:
* Introduce additional plant species.
* Stockpile feed.
* Make use of crop residues and aftermath feed.
Some producers have interseeded grasses or legumes that add to the diversity of the plant community and provide some forage later into the fall and early winter.
Also, annual plants can be used to provide grazing after perennials have stopped growing. This requires some available crop land on which to plant the grazing annuals. Members of the brassica family, such as turnips and kale, as well as small grains have been successfully used for this purpose. Triticale has been one of the most popular grains for cold season grazing.
It is possible sometimes, through grazing management, to increase the diversity of the plant community and thereby have species that are available later in the fall.
A producer I know was able to change a monoculture into a quite diverse plant community resulting in earlier grazing in the spring and later grazing in the fall. This was done on irrigated pasture where moisture was not a limiting factor. He did it simply by going to a higher-density, shorter-term grazing program and planned grazing.
The results were not from seeding or fertilizing, or other high-cost inputs, just a change in management. It did require an additional investment in fencing. Getting responses from this type of management change and the speed of such changes depends on available moisture.
Higher-density, shorter-term grazing tends to make for more uniform utilization of plants, allows shorter terms of plant exposure and gives the plants more recovery time before being bitten again. It mimics the grazing that existed at one time on our vast grasslands, such as those in the Great Plains, which provided habitat for buffalo and other ungulates. Those areas were examples of healthy, grass-based ecosystems.
Monitoring pastures and rangelands is always important, but especially in a high density-short term grazing approach. The manager must know the forage utilization at all times, because the situation can change quite rapidly.
Animals have to be moved more often and they should be moved from a paddock as soon as the targeted amount of forage has been removed and before the plants have been overgrazed. Monitoring to know exactly what is happening in the plant community and acting upon that information are the keys to success.
Obviously, this requires a higher level of management. Monitoring properly will tell the manager how well things are going and when there may be a need to alter from the original plan due to circumstances. This adaptive management approach allows for adjustments needed to keep the operation on track.
Doug Warnock, a retired Washington State University extension agent, consults and writes on ranch and farm management.