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Mountain Forage Management: Assessing and Adjusting

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When a herder comes up with a mountain grazing schedule, which involves a succession of circuits to be taken daily, he must evaluate the amount of time the flock will spend in each sector and how many times it can graze each sector, taking into account the type of activity of the flock. For example, in Sector X, the herder knows that the flock will be able to graze intensely for about two hours for five or six days in a row.


FIGURE 3: Simplified presentation of layout and utilization schedule: a mountain area comprising three distinct quarters (shaded area: sectors with one nighttime resting place).

In practice, grazing never goes quite according to plan for various reasons: stormy weather, a broken leg that forces the entire flock back down to the pen, the early drying-up of a stock watering point, etc. The herder must adjust his plan and constantly reassess the available forage resources and number of days of grazing left. He retains a certain amount of flexibility, since he can usually accelerate or slow the flock’s movement, deciding to abandon a standard circuit or instead keep the flock on it a few more days, even if that means grazing the forage to a maximum.

The art of herding lies in the herder’s ability to correctly assess the number of grazing days remaining. Assessing availability of forage and the sheep’s potential consumption of it is difficult and subjective. It requires years of experience on the same mountain, but this is not always available to herders for reasons of professional mobility. In addition to any experience, the herder may rely on many indicators such as the condition of vegetation (stage of development, height, color, extent of grazing by the flock, etc.). Once the flock is on site, the herder looks especially at its behavior, because the way sheep eat provides the most reliable information on what to expect on a given sector.

Rules for Forage Management

André Leroy has provided a number of principles for grazing management. The following rules may be drawn from these principles.

Utilization Schedule

Two rules apply to the order in which the various sectors should be used:

  • The first rule is that the order in which the sectors to graze at the beginning of season (i.e., July) should, to the extent possible, respect differences in vegetation growth. By the same token, the sectors whose vegetation is acceptable for the longest period of time should be set aside for the end of the grazing season.
  • The second rule is related to the uncertainty of weather conditions. Inclement weather makes a number of passages dangerous, greatly reduces visibility, and causes mountain streams to swell and rocks. It is therefore important to have the flock first graze, weather permitting, the sectors that are the most distant, the most difficult to access, and the hardest to negotiate in high winds, rain, or snow, and to save the sectors providing the most shelter and the easiest to access until the end of the grazing season.
FIGURE 4: Organization and utilization schedule for a mountain with only two quarters (no separate September quarter).

Different types of graphical representations make it possible to visualize the layout of a high mountain pasture and grazing schedule for that pasture. Figures 3 and 4 include: a) a symbolic representation of the functional division of the land into quarters and sectors, with details on the combination of the various sectors within successive sets of standard grazing circuits, and b) an analytical diagram based on a grazing schedule. This type of seasonal-schedule diagram is useful in that it includes information at day-scale (Figure 5). Map 7 (see color insert) represents the mountain utilization schedule and is complementary to the previous map; it accounts for spatial aspects, which
are absolutely essential in terms of management. One of the advantages of these two types of representations is that they can be produced quickly based on a simple survey.

Encouraging Intensive Grazing

FIGURE 5: Seasonal utilization schedule described at dayscale. Example of a mountain area in which the August quarter lacks a watering point beginning in mid-August (variant of Figure 3). The flock must come down the mountain every three days to drink in Sector 2 of the July quarter, which requires it to go through Sector 3 and to rest for the night in Sector 1; it follows the same itinerary in reverse order the following day. Changing quarters on September 1.

Intensive grazing (i.e., stationary grazing and grazing-travel) allows the flock to use the sectors with the best resources, qualitatively and quantitatively, in the best conditions. It minimizes travel, wandering, and wastage while favoring forage intake. It is in the herder’s interest to encourage the development of this type of behavior through his actions and forage management. The herder will lead the flock onto only those sectors that he considers the flock is ready to graze intensively. Once there, he will attempt to slow the flock down as much as possible. Finally, as soon as they begin to show disinterest and to move about, he will allow the flock to continue on its route, in order to keep from wasting forage.

Choosing Rationed Grazing

This new rule may be considered a corollary to the last one. It involves herding the flock in such a way as to gradually explore a given area, so that the sheep find “new, tender grass every day.”

For this reason, André Leroy prevents his flock from straightaway traveling across an entire sector (Figure 6). He also rigorously manages the flock’s grazing activity so that it resembles rationed grazing as implemented in some intensive production systems. According to him, rationing is a general principle that economizes forage by minimizing wastage. Left on their own, sheep will quickly travel across the entire area available to them, feeding on only the most palatable vegetation while trampling and dunging on the entire area. Rationed grazing has other advantages, according to André:

Rationing means that sheep get more regular meals from one day to the next. If the herder allows the sheep to roam free, when they get to a new quarter, they splurge the first few days and survive on a meager diet many days after that. Sheep are happy to find new grass. They’ll settle down and calmly start eating. That means that they’re more likely, later on, to graze already-visited areas, because a sheep eats better on a full stomach than on an empty stomach. It maintains their interest—then all the good stuff has been eaten, the sheep want to move about constantly. They know exactly which areas they have already grazed and which areas have fresh grass. That facilitates herding the flock and designing grazing circuits.

Map 8 (see color insert), which was produced using GIS, vividly illustrates the gradual process of exploration of the mountain pasture. The size of the juxtaposed plots of fresh forage, or the new zones that are explored from one day to the next, provide information on the abundance of vegetation: “The less dense the grass, the greater surface area must be provided to the flock, that is, if you want it to stop and graze quietly.” This requires a compromise, taking into account the overall availability of resources. In periods of scarcity, the plots of fresh grass become progressively less numerous and even disappear.

Learn more about The Art and Science of Shepherding here!

About the Editors:

Michel Meuret obtained degrees in agronomy and ecology from Brussels University in 1983. Michel got his PhD in animal ecology sciences in 1989 and was immediately recruited by INRA as permanent researcher to study grazing practices and animal nutrition on rangelands. He has since led several interdisciplinary research projects on the implementation of European policies, in particular the value of livestock grazing for improving wildlife habitat and biodiversity conservation. In 2012 he joined SupAgro agronomy school at Montpellier as consultant professor. Michel is regularly asked by farmers, herders, and nature conservationists to teach and promote debates on herding techniques. On several occasions, Michel has been invited to present his experience in the United States and other countries that are intrigued by the unique French experiences of nature-friendly shepherding. Michel now serves as a director of research at INRA.

Fred Provenza is from Colorado, where he worked on a ranch near Salida, while earning a bachelor of science in wildlife biology from Colorado State University. Upon receiving his degree in 1973, he became ranch manager. He and his wife Sue left the ranch in 1975 so he could work as a research assistant and technician at Utah State University, where he earned MS and PhD degrees. He was a professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University from 1982 to 2009. He is now professor emeritus, and he and his wife are living once again in the mountains of Colorado.

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