By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

EVERETT, Wash. -- When Steve Franson looks at an overgrazed pasture, he sees money lost.

The forage research and Washington State University Extension agronomist spoke to a group of farmers and prospective farmers at the Nov. 3 Focus on Farming conference.

He said the profit lies in the leaf area index -- or LAI. This is the ratio of leaf area to ground area. An index from 3:1 to 6:1 is healthy; in an overgrazed pasture, the ratio can be less than 0.25:1.

The driving force is the sun, "and sunlight doesn't cost a dime," he said. Leaves capture the energy, translating into more roots.

More root systems store more carbon in the soil, and they're also money in the bank. Soil is where the growth energy starts, relating to strong, healthy pastures and animals.

"A plant dies from underground first, then we see results above," Franson said. "You need to dig up plants to find the truth underground."

Overgrazing kills the roots and doesn't capture the free source of energy. That's one cost.

Another cost is rehabilitation after weed invasion. Weed seeds develop in summer, and in the fall they'll germinate in bare, overgrazed areas. Once established, the seeds overwinter, then "next year they'll explode," he said. Then the farmer has to apply herbicide and overseed invaded areas.

Sufficient grass length, however, will keep any seeds from getting sunlight.

There's a longer-term cost, too. Closer grazing stresses the plants, causing them to shed roots instead of creating them. It takes much longer for an overgrazed area to recover than one where the animals have been pulled off at the right time.

A farmer can balance the performance of both the animals and the land. "You can get the best out of both of them, find the happy medium," Franson said.

It's all determined by the stocking rate, he said. A good pasture program:

* Controls grazing animals;

* Maximizes animal response;

* Maximizes forage response;

* Improves the environment, which Franson called a "long-term bank account;"

* Protects soil resources;

* Makes the farm sustainable by lowering costs.

Animals won't cooperate on their own, he said. Most of the sugar is in that bottom 3 inches. It's most attractive to the animals, but the roots need that.

"Animals will walk over longer grasses to get to the shorter stuff," he said.

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