It’s called ‘strategic grazing’
Farm News staff writer
Cushing – After Park Ludvigson decided to transform a row-crop operation on the rolling terrain southwest of Cushing into a pasture in 2007, the results have impressed fellow cattle producers looking at options for rotational grazing and conservation techniques.
During a June 23 pasture walk in this northern Woodbury?County community, it wasn’t unusual to hear other cattle producers comment that “it’s sure pretty to look at” as they toured the 134-acre alfalfa and grass pasture.
“You learn every year with a system like this,” said Ludvigson, of Ludvigson Stock Farm, who utilized the Environmental Quality Incentives Program program from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help with seeding and grazing incentives.
“Because the land is hillier here and the soil is lighter, this grazing system will help build the soil,” he said.
Ludvigson runs more than 200 cows and calves on the pasture, which was seeded with 13 pounds of grass seed mix – including brome, rye and orchard grass – per acre, eight pounds of alfalfa and one bushel of oats for a cover crop.
By late June, Ludvigson had removed 260 tons of hay off the pasture. “We haven’t had to fertilize, so that has been quite a savings for us,” added Ludvigson, who noted that he might start seeding some red clover into the pasture
The pasture is divided into 11 paddocks and the cattle are fenced out completely from the creek that runs through the pasture.
Creek crossings in the pasture incorporate existing dirt crossings that were once used to get machinery across the creek when the land was farmed. Ludvigson usually leaves the cattle in a paddock for one to two days before rotating them to the next.
“It only takes about 10 minutes to move the cows, because they like to go to the fresh grass,”?Ludvigson said. “It takes longer to move the water tank.”
The rotational grazing system has also aided weed control efforts. “If you don’t graze it down, you have fewer weed problems,” said Ludvigson, who added that he hasn’t had problems with gophers, either.
He continues to graze his cattle on the pasture until nearly the first of October. The cows are moved every day prior to this, however, to ensure there will be plenty of new growth in each padock, which helps the plants survive the winter.
Protecting water quality
Rotational grazing systems and “flash grazing,” in which cattle are allowed in one area for no more than four days, never grazing the pasture to less than four inches, also retain greater vegetative cover.
This provides more protection to streams that run through the pastures, said Dr. Jim Russell, an animal scientist from Iowa State University who spoke during the pasture walk.
By properly managing pasture water, this helps maintain the health and productivity of livestock on a farm, in addition to contributing to water quality downstream.
Pasture conditions that encourage cattle to gather near streams and ponds may increase sediment, nutrient and pathogen-loading of these water sources from manure deposition, as well as bank erosion.
However, these challenges can be controlled by strategic grazing and pasture characteristics that alter the timing, frequency, duration or intensity of cattle congregating near pasture streams and ponds, Russell said.
“Studies show that cows with unlimited access to streams spend 2 percent of their time in the water, and 16 to 20 percent of their time within 100 feet of the stream,” said Russell, who noted that riparian buffers and crossings can protect water quality.
Riparian areas serve as a transition between upland pastures and waterways. Riparian buffers that are managed with grasses, trees or shrubs can help filter sediment and nutrients from surface water.
The size of the pasture can also make a difference.
“When you have a small, narrow pasture, for example, cows will spend more time in the creek, because they don’t have much choice,” Russell said.
Available shade will also play a factor in whether cattle congregate in a stream.
Studies show, Russell added, that cattle spend more time near streams when temperatures are 70 degrees or higher. The presence of shade in upland portions of pastures has been shown to decrease the amount of time cattle spend in or near pasture water, according to Iowa State University.
Some pasture water quality factors are harder for cattle producers to control, however. Streambank erosion, for example, is more related to hydrological factors more than cattle grazing, Russell said.
In addition, pathogens in the water supply may be traced back to wildlife, including deer, raccoons and geese, instead of cattle only. “We find pathogens just about as often coming onto a pasture as leaving a pasture through the stream,” Russell said. “Still, I encourage producers to try to maintain adequate vegetation along the stream to help trap pathogens and keep the water as clean as possible.”
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