Pasture management is key to good farming

June 07, 2011|By JEFF SEMLER |
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Agriculture is defined by Webster as the science, art or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops and raising livestock.

Common synonyms are farming and husbandry. As you probably know, our area produces acres of wheat, barley, corn and soybeans as well as tons of forage for livestock consumption. This forage is either harvested mechanically by the farmer or directly by grazing animals.

It is grazing livestock that is my focus in this article. Animals have been grazing for thousands of years. The predominant grazing animals are a class known as ruminants. Ruminants have some very unique characteristics. They have no top teeth in the front, only a hard dental pad. They do have molars both top and bottom. They also have a four- compartment stomach, the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum.

This digestive system allows them to digest plant-based food by initially softening it within the animal’s first stomach, then regurgitating the semi-digested mass, now known as cud, and chewing it again. The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called “ruminating.”

There are nearly 150 species of ruminants, both domestic and wild. Ruminating mammals include cattle, goats, sheep, giraffes, bison, moose, elk, yaks, water buffalo, deer, camels, alpacas, llamas, antelope and many more.

Now to the care of the domesticated grazing animals, known as pasture management.  There are many different management systems, some almost as old as time itself. Lot, Abraham, Jacob and Moses were all herders and they moved their flocks and herds from place-to-place, following the grass, if you will.

The nomadic tribes of the Great Plains followed great herds of buffalo which managed themselves by continuously moving to fresh grazing. Today, with the advent of fences, we have to do the moving to ensure the best grazing for both the plant and the animal.

There are many grazing management systems; they vary from moving animals every few hours to not moving animals at all. The latter system is actually management by default. It’s what I call turn out the animals in the spring and collect the survivors in the fall. Unfortunately, this is an all too common practice. The pastures are overgrazed and the animals do not perform to their genetic potential unless they are given supplemental feed. In many cases that means expensive feed-like grain.

Truly managed systems require planning and moving the livestock. Pasture-based dairy farms move their cows at least every 12 hours. I hear you out there; it is easy for them since they milk twice a day so they just give the cows access to fresh pasture after milking. You are correct.

Regardless of your livestock, whether they are cows, sheep, horses or alpacas, rotating the pastures is not only good for the forage, it is good for the animal. The most important element is the rest period for the grass. During the spring and fall when rain is more plentiful, the rest period can be as short as 14 days. But during the dog days of summer, the rest period should be at least 30 days.

The air was just sucked out of the room for some of you. You are thinking, this guy is nuts. I don’t have the pasture to do that. I would say there are two possible answers to that claim. The first could be you are correct and you will need to reduce your livestock numbers. The second possible answer is you need to evaluate your system and probably make your pastures smaller.

If any of this interests you, we have an opportunity for you this coming Thursday evening, June 9. A pasture walk focused on Forage Based Beef Production will be held at the farm of Doug and Sarah Price, 6119 Mondell Road, Sharpsburg, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

The farm is home to an Angus based cow-calf herd where very little hay is fed and nearly 100 percent of the herd’s feed is from graze forage. We will discuss forage management, genetics and view the farm’s handling system.

The event is free but please call to register so we can be adequately prepare to make this learning experience a pleasant one.

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

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