Good Grazing Management: Build a Drought Reserve

One of the best ways to prepare for drought is by building and maintaining a drought reserve. A drought reserve is forage (grass, forbs, brush or whatever your livestock will eat) that is not consumed by the animals during the growing sea­son. This forage is then available if rain doesn’t come or can be grazed during the dormant season.

An Angus calf grazing.

The traditional and most logical way to build a drought reserve is to set aside some land and not graze it. If you need to, you can turn your livestock into these areas and they can survive on the forage you have stockpiled there. Think of this as a savings account. But instead of saving money, you are saving forage.

In a traditional drought reserve your savings account is separate from your checking account. Think of your check­ing account as grass that you are grazing, possibly multiple times a year. The bal­ance in your checking account changes all the time; sometimes you have a sur­plus of grass and at other times you might be low.

The traditional drought reserve might seem like a good idea, but Ian Mitchell-Innes of South Africa uses a different technique to build a drought reserve that is far superior to the traditional way of stockpiling grass. Mitchell-Innes learned this from holis­tic management planned grazing, and I learned this technique during my in­ternship on his ranch. The most exciting feature of building a drought reserve in this manner is the fact that your entire farm/ranch is the drought reserve.

You might be asking “Why not set aside X amount of acres (or hectares) in case it doesn’t rain?” The answer to that question is because you are not utilizing the grass that you’ve set aside. In other words once the grass reaches full matu­rity it no longer produces leaf or energy that can be used by grazing animals. It’s a one-shot deal. The forage grows and then is consumed during the drought. This would be like eating all the candy you get for Halloween in one night instead of rationing it out during the year.

Conversely, Mitchell-Innes grazes his forage lightly, taking on average only the top one-third of the plant. This can only be achieved when the correct stock density and recovery period has been established for your area. Why is this beneficial and how does it build a drought reserve? Since the plant has two-thirds of its original mass left, it has a chance to collect solar energy because you’ve left some residual leaf.

We all know that leaves are how plants grow via photosynthesis. If your livestock graze the entire grass plant it’s forced to use energy reserved in its roots to form new growth, instead of the sun’s free and abundant energy. In order to return to its former glory, the grass plant that has been defoliated more than one-third needs much longer to recover. Because many people allow their livestock to se­verely graze forage it is understandable why they would set aside a traditional drought reserve. A plant should never stop growing during the growing season.

However, more tonnage of grass could be grown if you set aside your en­tire farm/ranch as the drought reserve by grazing only one-third of the plant dur­ing each grazing session. Mitchell-Innes calls this “building your haystack.” Each time the top one-third of the plant is grazed, it grows more leaf and becomes denser (like pruning a rose). This doesn’t mean you only graze each paddock one time during the growing season, taking only the top one-third of the available forage. Then again, depending on your situation and climate it could mean just that, but in most cases this is not true.

For illustrative purposes, lets say that Mitchell-Innes’ large cow-calf herd was in “paddock A” 30 days ago. Paddock A was lightly grazed by the animals meaning they only took one-third of the plant. Now it is time to graze paddock A again. Please note that the recovery pe­riod has many variables. Your recovery period might be 15 days or 365. How­ever, because of how lightly paddock A was grazed the first time, the grass is growing very quickly. This means there is more grass than there was prior to the first rotation.

Mitchell-Innes will again have his livestock only take the top one-third of the grass plant on this second grazing period. There is still two-thirds left as non-growing season forage or the drought reserve. If they continue to receive rain, even more grass will be grown than was there during the two previous grazings. This is how Mitchell-Innes treats his entire ranch.

To re-emphasize my point, let’s say that for some reason it did not rain for three consecutive months. Mitchell-Innes now has his entire farm as the drought re­serve, with two-thirds of the grass plants remaining in each paddock, and many of the grass plants have recovered from the original defoliation. Mitchell-Innes emphasizes that your livestock should have food behind and in front of them at all times. This forage is not “wasted,” it’s actually an asset — it’s your drought reserve!

Even if Mitchell-Innes set aside 2,000 acres as a traditional drought re­serve, meaning he doesn’t graze it at all during the growing season, it would pale in comparison to the amount of forage he’s produced on the other 10,000 acres when grazed properly (taking one-third and moving on). I want to clarify that just because I’ve used large acreage in my examples doesn’t mean it won’t work on your 35-acre property. The principles are the same.

Grass that is grazed in this manner also has a better nutrition profile. This means the grass has more energy (hydro­gen) in it, due to the fact that it’s able to capture more sunlight and convert that into energy which keeps the grass palat­able and enables the animals to utilize it to put on weight, breed and grow (this is referred to as animal performance). This is a huge contrast to the drought reserve that many people set aside, let grow to full maturity and stand dormant (even in the growing season) which consequently loses its nutritional profile with each passing day. Because the grass is dormant, it’s more of a “maintenance” diet than a high-energy diet.

By grazing your livestock in this man­ner they will enjoy a longer period of palatable grasses all while you build your drought reserve. Proper grazing management is the best insurance you will never buy.

This is one of the most important concepts in grazing management to grasp and I want to thank Ian Mitchell-Innes for generously sharing it with me. You really can have your cake and eat it too!

By Chris Stelzer. This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.


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