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Pasture management isn't that complex

April 21, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

Spring is well on its way with welcome showers and warmer temperatures. This is the time when the corner planters will be hitting the fields and livestock will be turned out on pasture.

Pasture management will be our topic of discussion today. It is one of the least understood or so it seems the least practiced management strategy in the agrarians' tool box.

The major problems I see range from too many horses on a plot of land to people who choose not to move their cattle off the pasture. The most prominent summer pasture management strategy for many cattlemen is to turn out the cattle in the spring and collect the survivors in the fall. Now of course that is hyperbole, the cattle survive and maybe even thrive but the pasture plants do not.

What happens next is the pasture sward (grasses and clovers) thins and weeds encroach. The key for pastures to thrive is rest and recuperation for the pasture plants. Overgrazing ends up starving the plants.

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My typical example is your front lawn. You usually mow your lawn on a schedule, but by leaving the animals on pasture continuously you are mowing your pasture daily.

So what should you do? First make sure your property and your livestock match. The rule of thumb is one animal unit for two acres. An animal unit is one thousand pounds or roughly an adult horse or cow.

This is known as stocking rate. If you have two acres then you can pasture one cow and her calf sustainably. Meaning you can adequately feed them and the pasture will survive. The key is to divide the pasture into sub units called paddocks and move or rotate the livestock.

Where do you start? Divide your pasture into smaller units and move your livestock. In the spring, you can make your paddocks smaller and move your stock faster and in the summer you will make the paddocks larger and move the stock more slowly.

While this may sound complex, it is not. Start slowly and make your rotations work for you. Most naysayers hear about the grazing dairymen moving their cattle every 12 hours and they say that is too much for them. You don't have to move your animals that often although three to five days is the limit.

Once you hone your skills, you can reduce the acreage requirements or increase your animal numbers. If you are looking for a place to learn your skills, we have an upcoming opportunity for you. On Thursday, we will be hosting a Pasture Management in the Field workshop. The session will be held at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center on Keedysville Road (look for the signs) from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

If you plan to attend, contact the Washington County Extension office to register so we will have enough handouts for everybody.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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