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Assessing Proper Recovery Time in a Holistic Planned Grazing System

Knowing when to let a paddock rest is a crucial part of a Holistic Planned Grazing program.

By SPENCER SMITH

Holistic Planned Grazing is defined as a pillar of regenerative agriculture. It is one of the most beneficial actions to improve ecosystem function, and soil health, on a farm or ranch.  However, it is not quite as simple as just adding graziers to the system and expecting beneficial results to be the natural outcome. 


In other articles that I have written for Acres U.S.A., we discussed Holistic Planned Grazing and how proper planning of animal impact at the optimum phase of a plant’s life cycle will create cascading and compounding beneficial effects. Just as important as selecting the correct time to move your graziers to a pasture, we also need to plan for the recovery of those plants. 

Allan Savory’s work in developing Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) focuses on grazing from the plant’s perspective, and planning for adequate recovery of the forage species in the pastures under management. This is fundamental to good grazing management, and is often misunderstood.  

When you ask graziers what is most important in good grazing management, most will first explain that high stock densities are needed to get adequate dung distribution and even trampling of biomass. This is true. Then, they will explain that you need to allow the pasture to recover until animal impact is used again. The question that I find that many graziers have is, how long is the proper recovery period? What happens if I come back too soon or wait too long? How might this differ if I am grazing cattle stockers compared to pairs or grass finishers? What about other livestock species? So let’s learn how to assess proper recovery times, and how a Holistic Planned Grazing sheet (when properly filled out) can take the mystery out of all this.

But first, let’s discuss how grass grows.

How Grass Grows

When the soil reaches the correct temperatures, and adequate moisture is present, grasses awaken from dormancy. They are doing so with the energy they constructed last fall, and stored over winter. This emergence is the beginning of Stage 1 growth on the growth curve. At this stage, it is important that we allow time for these plants to grow and develop. Planned recovery begins now. This is because we must continue to allow for proper recovery from the grazing last fall, and allow grasses to photosynthesize enough to build up their carbohydrate reserves in the plant.

Once we are in Stage 2 growth, the plants in our pastures will be strong enough to benefit from grazing pressure. Grazing any sooner than Stage 2 will cause a plant to slough roots and you will be overgrazing the perennial grasses in your pastures. Stage 2 of the grass’s growth curve also coincides with the best mix of proteins and carbohydrates in the forages itself. If we allow too much time to go by before grazing the plant, it will continue to develop into Stage 3, this is characterized in grasses by the emergence of the seed head, or the grass flower. If the grasses in your pastures have reached Stage 3, then photosynthesis is shutting down, as the plant’s priority is shifting from creating and storing carbohydrates to reproduction. At this point, the leaves will begin to lose vigor and nutrition as the plant prepares itself for the weight of a seed head full of heavy seeds. For the grass plant to keep the flower upright in the wind, evolution has adapted it to lignify its stem and leaves. When the plant reaches Stage 3, many farmers call the plants in the pasture “rank” or “woody.” Total digestible nutrients (TDN) drop very quickly during this transition, and forage quality can drop in what seems like overnight as plants transition from soluble carbohydrates to structural carbohydrates.  

So, it is important to manage for keeping plants in Stage 2 growth as long as possible. Many grazing zealots are either so afraid of allowing the grasses in their pastures to reach Stage 3 that they move too quickly through their rotations, and graze/overgraze plants in Stage 1. Or conversely, many graziers are so afraid of impacting grasses too soon that they let their fields go rank, resulting in lost photosynthetic potential, and forage quality, because they allow for a recovery period that is too long. If you find yourself in one of these camps, relax. With a bit of grazing period planning beforehand, you can take a lot of the guesswork out of effectively managing your pastures.  

Plant R&R

As any proper consultant will tell you, “it depends.”   It depends on the time of year, the types of forages in the given pasture, what your management objectives are, etc.    

Time of year matters. At the beginning of the growing season, you can almost watch the grass grow. It is happening so fast. Later in the summer when the daytime temperatures get warmer, growth might slow down considerably. Then in the fall of the year, plants grow at a more moderate rate before going dormant for the winter (non-growing season) months. When planning your grazing periods, you estimate what your average recovery times will be for each month of your growing season. For my ranch in Fort Bidwell, California, I can safely estimate that, in the months of May and June, a plant that is grazed will take about 30 days for it to completely recover from that grazing, in normal growing conditions. Once the dog days of summer hit in July though, I expand my recovery times by a couple of additional weeks, or about 45 to 60 days. In fall, management objectives shift again as I focus less on maximizing growing conditions and more on stockpiling my fall feed, or dormant reserves, as plants begin “fall tillering.” Fall tillering is the final push of photosynthesis for grasses. They work to construct and store their winter supply of carbohydrates so that they can emerge strong the next growing season. 

Let’s consider management objectives. Are you attempting to, for example, frame up yearling, finish cattle on grass or run a maternal herd in your herd?

This is an important consideration when deciding how to graze your pastures. If your objective is to run stocker cattle, and you want to maximize gains and frame development before you sell those calves, you may want to shorten those recovery periods by a couple of days. By choosing to graze your pastures at the shorter side of your optimum recovery periods you will keep the forages at a higher rate of protein, than if you graze with maximum forage production as your goal. The grasses at this stage have shiny leaves that are still pointing their leaf tips toward the sun. This higher rate of protein coincides with higher total digestible nutrients, and your calves will develop muscle and skeletal structure. Now this comes at a bit of a cost as you will be sacrificing tonnage of forage produced. There is the risk of overgrazing, which results in lost roots, and lost potential. 

If you finish cattle on grass, and your objective is to consistently produce finished, tender and buttery delicious beef, you will want to add a few days to the optimal recovery periods. Cattle should graze grasses that show the development of seed heads beginning to emerge. This more mature forage coincides with lower levels of protein, and higher levels of carbohydrates in the rumen fill. This ration of higher carbs will allow your cattle to maximize fat development, simultaneously increasing tenderness and decreasing that “gamey” flavor that so many people associate with grassfed beef. The gamey flavor results from beef not properly finished on grass. 

Most cow-calf producers are managing for maximum photosynthesis to hold the herd as long as possible. If this is you, you want to graze grasses that are fully developed in Stage 2. Most often, you will notice the plants have a healthy shine, and the leaves droop over. This is the prime time to graze the plants, as they are high in protein and carbs. They are photosynthesizing like crazy! When you graze these plants, your cows will be fat and milk heavy, and your pastures will begin to recover and grow additional forage quicker.  

Why Plan Grazing?

So, why is planning grazing so important? Why can’t a good grazier wing it, and manage their pastures by looking at the stage the plants in the field are currently in?

Ah, here comes the rub in all of this. Yes, you need to be able to see what is happening each day in your pastures to be an effective grazier. However, if you constantly graze for current conditions, future growing conditions will come back and bite you in the backside! This point may best be explained through an example.

Let’s assume you have 11 pastures and grasses are growing fast. You plan to be in each pasture for three days, allowing 30 days of recovery for every other pasture on the ranch. Let’s assume that you are grazing at the end of fast growth and things are starting to slow down. If you don’t have a planned recovery period that accounts for the slowdown, you risk not noticing the slow down in grass development in time to adjust, resulting in your maintaining a 30-day recovery, when a 45-day recovery is more appropriate. It might take you a week or so to catch the mistake, but it is too late to easily adjust. 

Now you are faced with a lose-lose decision: Do you park the herd in a sacrifice area to allow for time to catch up with your oversight, or do you make adjustments and go on? If you choose to sacrifice a pasture to hold the herd, you will certainly negatively affect the “sacrifice pasture,” and potentially the weight gain on the cattle will also suffer. On the other hand, if you adjust and keep trying to live with the consequences, you will certainly not have enough recovery time and you will negatively impact all the pastures. You can get away with that once, but what will likely happen to you, is you will overgraze the plants in each subsequent pasture. This will ensure that your plants will not recover as quickly as they could have and forage production will suffer. Since production and forage growth is degraded, you will have to move even quicker the next time through your pastures, as there will not be adequate forage available for the livestock. This is a common problem that people find themselves in. 

The best way to ensure that you graze cattle or livestock to create maximum benefits to your herd, your pastures and your profit margin, is to use the time-tested and proven planning procedures of Holistic Planned Grazing, outlined in Jody Butterfield and Allan Savory’s book Holistic Management, 3rd Edition. Serious graziers should have a copy of this book, as well as the Holistic Management Handbook, in their library. 

Spencer Smith is a Savory Field Professional. Savory Global Network hubs provide accredited Holistic Management training and support across the world. Abbey and Spencer Smith manage the Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada, called the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management. They live in Fort Bidwell, California on Springs Ranch where they produce grass-fed beef, provide Holistic Management training, consulting, Ecological Outcome Verification enrollment, and manage contract grazing on the ranch pastures. Visit www.jeffersonhub.com to learn more.

Spencer Smith to speak at 2020 Healthy Soil Summit

The 2nd annual Healthy Soil Summit will take place this August 25-26. The event is online-only, meaning you can join from anywhere! Among the presenters will be expert rancher Spencer Smith, who will take you through “The Value and Practice of Integrating Animals in Your Operation.” View the presenter agenda and speaker info here.