At 45 mph: Pasture management is challenging

How many times have you needed to check pasture conditions, but thanks to your busy day, you just stick your neck out of the pickup window as you are driving by to make a judgment on whether you have a few more days left in your pasture or not?

This is what I like to call a “pasture drive-by.” We've all done it, especially if there's a need to cover a lot of country in a short amount of time. But, unless your mind can slow things down considerably, about all you can tell about the pasture situation is the particular shade of green (or not green) the grass is. Wait, let me rephrase that - the shade the forage is, because you can't tell for sure how much of the pasture is grass or weeds.

Another limitation to this approach is depth perception. Unless the pasture has some slope or a rolling nature, your assumptions are limited to 150 to 200 hundred yards. Of course, accuracy does increase the shorter the pasture is grazed — but that is a bad thing. Some of the things you can miss with this method include determining average stubble height, incidents of spot grazing, potential erosion development, percentage of thatch or old growth, onset of weed encroachment, etc.

If you are looking at rangeland, your perceived abilities with this method are even less, because you certainly can't tell if the best forage species are being overgrazed or not or if grazing distribution problems are developing. We all know that rangeland systems are more diverse than most introduced pasture systems, and with plant diversity comes more indicators that can be missed using the “drive-by” method.

Typically, the way most drive-bys get started is when you are out to check cattle. Once we see that all are present and accounted for and in good shape, we go to other tasks. Americans have become busier now than at any other time in history. Many livestock producers also hold down another job in town as well as having to attend kids' activities and so on.

Tools such as the pickup and the four-wheeler have helped us get more tasks done in a day's time, but does the time they save outweigh the loss in pasture or rangeland productivity if we don't pay attention to details? If we do no more than check cattle, fences and watering points, I would say “no” to that question.

You have to consider more than feeding areas and watering holes to know if your pastures are in good or bad shape. And you actually need to get down on two feet to assess the situation and determine corrective management decisions.

Usually, feeding and watering areas are the most abused by grazing. It's often the rest of the pasture that tells the story. Plant structure can also deceive the 45-mph pasture judge.

Overgrazing often leads to weed encroachment, prolonged forage recovery, and reduced livestock carrying capacity. With that in mind, you don't have to take the drive-by out of your vocabulary: you just need to practice it in the right areas on your property. This means areas other than where cattle congregate in the hot afternoon (after you get off work).

I also suggest you purchase a plant identification book — not one of the extensive keys, but a pictorial guide or one with good photographs. Once you get better at plant identification, you will find that you are more prone to get out of the pickup and take a closer look before making grazing management decisions…or at least you might slow down a little bit.

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