Planned grazing improves forage
By DOUG WARNOCK
For the Capital Press
Implementing planned grazing has resulted in an improved plant community, greater forage production, healthier animals and a better quality of life, according to one person who tried it.
Sandra Matheson, a veterinarian in Bellingham, Wash., operates the family farm where she was raised and runs about 100 head of beef cattle. She changed to holistic planned grazing after her involvement in 1995 in a four-year educational program. The program was conducted by Don Nelson, Washington State University Extension beef cattle specialist.
Planned grazing focuses on keeping the forage plants as healthy as possible. It involves increasing animal density and decreasing the time the plants are exposed to grazing animals. It also emphasizes allowing ample time for plant recovery before being grazed again.
To be successful, it requires frequent monitoring to know how much forage the animals are taking and when to move them off a pasture to avoid overgrazing.
"When I first started the application of planned grazing, my pasture had a fair amount of bare ground, dandelions, annual grasses, lots of moss, thistles, lichen and some tufts of orchard grass, clovers and a few other perennial grasses," she said. "There wasn't much litter. There was a little evidence of soil movement in places.
She also noticed that there were significant amounts of soil capping and cracked ground. The breakdown of cow manure was very slow and there were no dung beetles present. All these were indications of a relatively unhealthy ecosystem.
"With holistic planned grazing, the plant spacing decreased, there was almost no soil capping, much less moss, almost no lichen, fewer dandelions and thistles, more varieties of perennial grasses and legumes, less soil movement and more rapid breakdown of cow manure," she said. "The manure breakdown that used to take several months now only takes a few days. We began to see dung beetles and much more biological activity."
Forage production on the Matheson operation has increased significantly, allowing her to increase the herd size over time. The herd has more than doubled and this year will be triple the size it was when she first started planned grazing.
"Animal response has been very good, too," she said. "My cattle are healthier, happier and in better condition than ever before. There is less illness and little stress."
Matheson is now weaning the calves on pasture and has had no respiratory disease during weaning.
"My quality of life has improved, too," Matheson said. She reports less work and fewer expenses. She has more enjoyment in working with the cattle and watching them thrive on the higher-quality feed.
Matheson is not only a practitioner of planned grazing, but also teaches it to others. She is part of a team of educators, known as Managing Change Northwest, which conducts workshops on planned grazing, financial planning, biological monitoring and related managerial topics.
Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, now lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he consults and writes on ranch management.