Hugh Aljoe has visited a lot of ranches and consulted with a lot of livestock producers in his role as the director of producer relations and as a pasture and range consultant with the Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, Okla. He readily admits that some of those operations and their managers are more successful than others.
Aljoe, along with his colleague Jeff Goodwin, shared their observations and thoughts about intentional pasture management at the recent Cattlemen’s College held in San Antonio, Texas.
When looking at a livestock operation, Aljoe boils down the components into seven primary areas: pastures, stocking rates, beef cattle, marketing, records, personnel, and management planning.
“You can’t have a myopic focus on one area or another,” Aljoe said. “The successful operator takes a broader view.”
Aljoe did point out that it’s important to start somewhere, and for him, that starting point is the pasture. “The pasture is the foundation that feeds the beef cow factory,” he noted. “It’s comprised of three components: the soils, the forages, and the grazing management.”
Start with the soil
Goodwin emphasized the importance of understanding your soil and its productivity potential. “Soils drive the functionality of our ecological systems,” he said. “The health of our soils is not very different than the health of our human bodies.”
Goodwin suggested that the first step in understanding your soils is to assess what soil types comprise your pastures. This can be done using the Web Soil Survey, which is a free online tool provided by the Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS).
Once soil types and potential productivities are determined, the next step is to assess the physical, chemical, and biological components of your soils. This can be done using any one of an array of laboratory and in-field analyses. “One of the best tools to assess your soils is a shovel,” Goodwin said. “I don’t leave home without mine,” he added.
Finally, there needs to be a monitoring plan. “The monitoring plan is a measure of the effectiveness of our management,” Goodwin explained. “We can’t know if our management is being effective if we’re not measuring it over time.”
The Noble Research Institute has assembled a number of tools to help farmers and ranchers make the needed assessments and decisions.
What about the forage?
Once a soil assessment is made, the thought process for the intentional pasture manager is to evaluate the forage production capabilities of the pastures.
“We often use carrying capacity and stocking rate interchangeably,” Aljoe stated. “There is a difference. Carrying capacity is based on the amount of forage that is actually produced, whereas the stocking rate is the number of head grazing on a unit area. Not always are they in balance,” he added.
The amount of forage available for grazing will vary with the season and year. Aljoe emphasized the need for a plan. “Often, by the time we figure out we need to destock, it’s probably too late,” he said. “On the other hand, if we can identify a period of abundant forage early enough that we can begin to make plans to capture that, it’s to our financial benefit. That’s the difference between intentional management and what I would call reactionary management.”
Among the tools available from Noble is a carrying capacity & stocking rate calculator, a pasture management planner, a water year table, and an intuitive ranch assessment scorecard.
In addition to using record-keeping tools, Aljoe suggested that the easiest way to document changes is to take photos over time at the same location of a given pasture, especially those you’re trying to improve.
Grazing: manage what we can
“Nobody has control on how much rain you get, but everybody has control on how much rain you keep,” Goodwin said. “We need to focus on the things we can manage, and we need to mitigate the negative impacts of the rest.”
In terms of grazing decisions, Goodwin emphasized that we control the timing, intensity, frequency, and duration. These four factors are the foundation of a grazing management plan.
“Once you have a plan developed for the entire year, then assume that you’re wrong,” Goodwin said. “Don’t stop with your primary plan; have something in place for contingencies because there is no normal year. All of these plans need to be done now.”
In addition to having a drought plan, Goodwin also suggests having a plan for excess rainfall, excess snow and ice, and excess forage. “Contingency plans need to include critical dates, actionable triggers, and associated actions,” he noted. “For example, at Noble we know exactly what we will do if it hasn’t rained a designated amount by June 1.”
Once again, the Noble Research Institute offers spreadsheets for developing a base grazing plan and for contingency plans.
“We want producers to manage intentionally and proactively,” Aljoe concluded. “Let me leave you with this thought: Successful producers are successful because they do what other producers are not willing to do.”
Often, that is to be intentional with your actions.