Water quality is affected by the practices of the livestock operator and one of the most overlooked methods of improving water quality is through planned grazing. This follows a discussion in my last column on livestock management practices that help to promote and support higher levels of water quality.
Planned grazing is a management approach that considers all known factors when deciding how livestock will use a pasture or rangeland. It results in a healthy, vigorous plant community, the soil surface is covered with plants that help to retain moisture and resist erosion, and provides palatable, nutritious forage for livestock and wildlife.
When managed properly, planned grazing will allow plant exposure to animals for a relatively short period and provide adequate time for plant recovery after grazing. This usually requires a larger number of pasture divisions by fencing or physically moving the animals regularly by herding.
The planning considers differences in the plant communities and how an area responds in each season and to various conditions. Fencing and water availability are important aspects that influence the movement and placement of animals. If there are times when certain areas should not be grazed due to higher plant toxin levels or wildlife activities, such as nesting or birthing, these are considered.
In uneven terrain, south slopes will green up and mature earlier than north slopes. Areas with predominantly annual plants tend to be better adapted to earlier grazing than those areas with mostly perennial plants. Also important is to have the animals in the right area at the right time to work calves, sort animals, or load prior to transporting them. These are a few of the considerations in laying out the plan for the grazing season.
Experience from past years will help when creating your grazing plan. Knowing that circumstances change due to many uncontrollable factors, the manager checks on a regular basis to note how the plants are doing. Keeping the forage base healthy and productive is key to its longevity and resilience.
A practical monitoring program adapted to the manager’s needs is an important element in keeping the plant communities healthy and productive. The monitoring system used should provide the manager with information that will be the most helpful in gauging the rate of plant tissue removal and the plant health.
The key to success from planned grazing is a short period of plant exposure and allowing enough recovery time after grazing to keep the primary plants in good vigor and high production. Well planned and adaptively managed grazing results in productive, resilient plants that enhance ecosystem health and promote high water quality.
Planned grazing is the focus of a grazing conference on May 6 at the Washington Family Ranch near Antelope, Oregon. Two concurrent workshops on monitoring grasslands and holistic planned grazing will occur on May 7 at the ranch. More information is available at pnchm.org.
Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he writes about and teaches grazing management. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.