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|Measuring forage as part of rotational grazing planning|
|Written by Alisa Raty|
|Thursday, 29 March 2012 13:04|
There are several ways to assess pasture growth and make management decisions.
But Jeff McCutcheon, an agricultural extension educator at Ohio State University, says he noticed that most methods were used to make decisions at the end of the year for next year.
“A lot of times the producers I worked with had to make decisions in the growing season, and looking at last year’s data didn’t really help,” McCutcheon says.
So McCutcheon started looking for other ways to assess pasture growth. During some international travel, he learned about measuring forage growth.
In 2005, he and two others started experimenting with the rising plate meter, a computerized device for measuring pasture forage.
McCutcheon started the Ohio Pasture Measurement Project in 2008.
Graziers who wanted to be involved contacted McCutcheon, who gave them a rising plate meter in return for weekly reports on the growth of their pastures.
These reports are posted each week of the growing season on the Ohio Forages blog. Producers in Ohio can look at this blog to see how things are growing overall and make decisions based on the growth that’s reported.
While using the blog can be useful, measuring forage growth oneself can be even more beneficial.
“A few years ago things started turning dry in May, and the ones who were measuring made adjustments earlier than other producers. With their measurements they saw the changes faster than people who just go out walking,” McCutcheon says.
Methods of measuring
“It’s like a little walking stick, more or less. There are some little gauges on the stick and there are different numbers placed on the stick so you can do some calculations just by using the stick,” Landefeld says.
But Landefeld has found that, although the sticks can be just as accurate, using the rising plate meter takes a lot less work and time. Barb Ewing, a grazier in Lenox, Ohio, found it to be very simple to use.
“When I got the device, I’m thinking, ‘Well, good heavens,’ but it really is very elementary and it was really very easy,” Ewing says.
Using measurements in rotation plans
McCutcheon says he has several Amish producers involved in the project and using the rising plate meter.
“I have one Amish man who put a chalkboard in his dairy parlor. And on the chalkboard, with tape, he outlined his fields – and somebody in his operation goes out once a week and walks all of his fields with the plate meter and writes down the information.
So when anybody goes into the parlor, they can see the pounds of dry matter in each field, so they know where the cows should go next,” McCutcheon says.
Chris Gibbs has 110 acres of pasture that he custom grazes for a beef seedstock operation. Gibbs reclaimed and fenced the pasture acreage two years ago, and uses the plate meter and a rotational system to improve and protect the pasture.
Gibbs grazes 70 cattle by dividing his pasture into three-acre to four-acre temporary pastures and moving them every day.
“Since we had a brand-new pasture – this operation was brand-new to us – we wanted to make sure that we knew immediately, on a weekly basis, how good our grasses were growing.
If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be able to predict how long of a rotation we would have throughout the month in each temporary paddock and how many pounds of animals we could put on per acre,” Gibbs says.
Right now, Gibbs uses measuring pasture as a means to keep from overgrazing his new pastures, but he says he plans to continue to use the measurements to make management decisions over time.
Landefeld grazes 20 beef cows on his pastures, setting aside some of the pastures for one to two hay cuttings. When there is excess grass growth, he cuts the extra on the other pastures. Landefeld says all of his pastures are grazed at some point in the year.
In preparation for the “summer slump” and early winter where grass growth stops or is at a minimum, he lets some pastures grow so there is still enough feed for all his cattle until after the first of the year. Because of his planning, he rarely has to buy off-farm feed. He uses the rising plate meter to help with his planning.
“The last two years we’ve had really good growing seasons, so I haven’t really had to make any major changes in what I normally do.
I think where it really comes in most handy is when you get into a drier season, when you can tell using the plate meter that the livestock are going to be needing more than what’s being grown.
It gives you a couple of weeks lead time. In most cases, if the trend continues, you may either need to purchase some concentrates, or you may need to utilize some hay or, maybe, you may need to sell some livestock,” Landefeld says.
Other reasons to measure forage
“What pasture measurement gave us was predictability. So if we had to stop these cattle – we use a 30-day rotation – if we had to stop these cattle before that and feed them processed feed or hay, we knew that well in advance and didn’t get right up on our 30-day window and then be out of pasture,” Gibbs says.
Ewing uses measurements to help with other management decisions besides stocking rates and rotation lengths.
“The growth rate gives you an indication of how often to fertilize. It makes you more aware of what grasses are coming up, how well they’re coming up, if you may need your soil tested, if you’re not getting proper growth or if a specific grass is taking over and why that is,” she says.
McCutcheon says he is a firm believer in measuring and recording pasture growth. Doing so makes it easier to recall key details and make management decisions. FG