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The Importance of Diversity in Ohio Grazing Systems

By John Kellis
Diversity is normally a good attribute to have. Whether that means diversity of thought, diversity in a workforce, diversity in your investments, or diversity in a population. Having too many eggs in one basket has always been considered risky and lacking the flexibility to adjust and react to outside influences.
While grazing livestock in Ohio and the Midwest might not seem to fit that same analogy, it is critical for producers trying to maximize returns and diversify their grazing operations. Most grazing operations are more exposed to negative influences from the weather than they need to be. There are options available that can reduce that exposure significantly.
Many livestock operators simply turn their cows into our cool season grass pastures until grasses go dormant in these summer months, feeding hay and/or exercising the cows until the cool-season pastures begin to regrow in the fall. Such practices expose an operation to more risk than necessary and if you evaluate the efficiency and total costs of such an operation, producers might want to start rethinking their assumptions about their grazing systems.
Diversifying to some may mean building a Heavy Use Area so they can pull the cows off the dormant pastures and feeding hay waiting for rain and cool temperatures to return. Well, growing, managing, cutting, conditioning, baling, and storing hay is not an activity that is easy or cheap. Such a plan is simply a contingency plan when weather does not cooperate. Diversifying your forage plan can make the seasonal weather changes work FOR you instead of AGAINST you.
Bob Hendershot, livestock producer and former NRCS Grazing Specialist, tells livestock producers to maximize the animal’s input and minimize the human input. “Make the cows work for you rather than you working for the cows.” The longer the livestock are grazing on actively growing pasture, the less need for hay or supplemental feed.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture, Division of Soil and Water has entered into a cooperative agreement with NRCS in Ohio to assist the local field offices and their producers in developing Grazing Management Plans. These plans provide producers access to cost assistance for infrastructure such as watering facilities, fence, Heavy Use Areas, Access Roads, and seedings. Many producers develop Grazing Mgt. Plans to gain access to financial assistance, but the Plan is designed to protect the resources and improve the profitability of the livestock operation. A well implemented Grazing Plan will ensure the long-term quality of the forages and improve the cost and labor efficiency of the grazing system.
Good planning allows producers to evaluate alternatives that can greatly increase the volume and quality of forage available to livestock. It can also help producers extend grazing through the hot summers of Ohio and well into the late fall or winter when the cool season pastures are dormant. Producers can “weatherize” their grazing operations.
Most Ohio Grazing systems await cool-season pastures to begin growing before initiating grazing. Some producers are augmenting the early-season pasture growth with fall planted cover crops such as cereal rye or Triticale for spring grazing or for green-chopped feed to be fed during the year. While many row-crop farmers are using cover crops to protect the soil over winter, good planning can utilize this crop for feed and serve to remove the crop for improved planting conditions.
As our cool-season pastures stop growing in late spring and early summer, many will leave the cattle on these paddocks too long to gain a little more forage. This can end up stunting the pastures and delaying the critical regrowth they need for fall grazing. These producers end up feeding hay and exercising their cattle in the summer, when resting those cool-season grasses and legumes would be the better solution.
An alternative is to establish some acres of warm-season grass pastures. While many have complained that it takes too long to establish these warm-season grasses, in the long run, this alternative can reduce inputs, put weight on the cattle, and allow cool-season pastures to rest and regrow for fall or early winter grazing, a practice called stockpiling.
The aggressive growth rates of these warm-season C4 native grasses in June, July, and August will allow producers to rotate through these paddocks at a faster rate reducing the typical 30-day rest period to around 20 days. This allows the livestock to fulfill their forage needs on fewer acres in the hot, humid summer months while the cool-season grasses are in a semi dormant state. The warm season grasses will become available in late May to early June at an 18 to 24-inch height and are typically grazed down to about 12 inches before moving to the next paddock.
Many producers have enrolled acres in Conservation Reserve (CRP) Program in the past and some have warm-season grass planting on those contracted acres. NRCS, ODA, and the Division of Wildlife are working together to find efficient ways to revamp the pure grass stands to a more diverse cover that could be utilized as summer forage. Everyone agrees that a quality warm-season grass with a good mixture of clovers and other forbs will provide better wildlife cover and extend active grazing for livestock into September. “What’s good for the Herd is good for the Bird”. Any forage that bridges that summer forage slump will reduce the need to feed hay and provide a way to continue putting weight on the cows.
As cool season grasses begin to regrow in early fall, the assumption has been to get the cows back on our cool-season pastures as soon as you can. Again, there are alternatives and options for grazers. One would be to plant summer annuals for grazing, particularly after a wheat crop. These include sorghum Sudan grass, pearl millet, or forage brassicas such as radishes or turnips, that tend to loosen the soil and can provide an early fall source of pasture forage. Another fall feed-stuff many producers use is to graze corn stalks.
Next week we’ll look at how Good Planning extends the grazing season and Protects the Resources.
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