When the Art and Science of Grazing May Not Match

Chris Penrose, Extension Educator, Morgan County (originally published in The Ohio Cattleman)

I remember the first forage presentation I did in Perry County back in 1989 and I have spent my life professionally and personally working with forages. When we started teaching grazing schools in the early 90’s, one of the foundational topics taught was the basics of Management Intensive Grazing and those principles include no seed heads, rest periods, and short duration grazing.

That is the science, how about the art?

I remember Lorin Sanford, our OSU Extension Beef Specialist saying to me almost 40 years ago that “It is the eye of the master that fattens the cow.” That is the art. In our environment with so many things that go on, sometimes the art is more important than the science and sometimes the science even supports the art.

For example, we talk about rotating from one paddock to the next, but not all are created equal. I have several that are drought prone which I may skip in dry weather and I have one paddock that is a piece of bottom ground that is extremely productive that I often graze twice as much. That is the soil science supporting the art of grazing. That same paddock is also subject to flooding and twice in my life I have seen that bottom completely covered with deep rushing water. When rain is forecast and the cows are due to go in, I skip that field.

Then three years ago when I had three cows go down and about died, we finally figured out it was buckeye poisoning, so when the nuts start falling off the trees in September, I skip the paddock with the most buckeye trees for a month. I even just stockpile it now and graze it after the other paddocks are done for the season.

How about non forage factors that can influence our grazing? During deer gun season, the cattle used to get nervous. I have one paddock that is surrounded completely by other paddocks on the farm. That is where I put them in case something happens and if they break through the fence, they only end up in another paddock. When I go on vacation, I may “cheat” a day or two in either direction keeping cattle in some paddocks to have them in the ones that will cause my neighbor the least amount of grief when he watches them.

I have about one half of my paddocks on one side of the farm and the rest on the other side. When I move them to each side, I have trained the cattle to go into the holding pen of the working facility, I close the gate, then I walk to the other side and open the other gate to a new paddock and let them out. When I need to work cattle on a certain date, I may keep them a day more or less in a paddock before we move them to be worked, and they think they are simply getting moved and go quietly into the pen. A one-person, stress free operation.

You don’t happen to have a neighbor with that straggly multibreed dairy/beef bull do you? If so, you may want to skip that paddock that he is next to before you are ready to breed your cattle.

Then there is the field you just sprayed for invasive weeds. Do you need to skip a rotation before the grazing restriction expires? How about the cherry tree that fell a few days ago and there are still some leaves drying out in the paddock?

When it gets very dry does the paddock still have water? Do you need to have two paddocks open if you do not have portable fence or water to allow for adequate water for the cattle?

When it is time to wean, do you keep the cows in the paddock by the barn for an extra day or two where the calves are at? When I first started raising cattle, I made the mistake of putting the cattle on the other end of the farm from the calves when I weaned. After repairing a lot of fence, I decided they could hear balling calves better than me.

Then there is the science for the inconsistent moving from paddock to paddock. When they are growing too fast, we can skip one or more and use for hay during the spring and summer. Later in the summer and fall, we can also skip some paddocks if they are growing faster than they can be grazed and stockpile for grazing later in the fall and winter.

I believe we have sound science in our grazing management principles which is a guideline for us to follow. We also have unique circumstances on our farm and in our lives that make not always following those guidelines the best decision for us.

However, if we keep the science in mind, the art will work much better!