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Forage assessments pay big dividends

Gene Krause

Published in Dairy Star March 26, 2005

educators in field

Long term success for any business is measured by the ability to generate a profit, not only in the high years but during the low years as well. However, realizing this and planning for this are two separate issues. It is not enough to just become aware of needed management practices and to identify goals. A plan must be developed to attain those goals. This can seem overwhelming at times when managing the entire farm operation. But, by tackling one component at a time, the planning becomes easier for the producer in order to progress along the path towards success.

As farm financial records will indicate, feed cost is the largest expense incurred in any livestock operation. Increased awareness to nutrient requirements and commodity markets can help reduce this expense. Another area that offers a reduced feed cost opportunity lies within grazing management. In fact, with a heightened awareness of this practice, grazing management has been known to effectively reduce feed costs by as much as 50 percent depending on the goals of the farm.

Unfortunately, lowering feed costs by improving or adding a grazing component to the dairy operation is not simple. And in itself it may not be enough to highly impact the profitability of the farm. Adopting this strategy can also come at a cost. Therefore, it is essential to balance the benefits of this decision to its affect on the entire farm operation. Achieving and maintaining cow productivity when using pasture for the primary forage source requires constant management. While a single daily decision may not be highly critical, the accumulation of daily decisions are and will affect pasture quality, quantity, milk production and ultimately the bottom line.

There are several factors that should be considered with grazing management such as body condition scoring, paddock planning, forage sampling and analysis, and pasture topdressing. Decisions should be made in the context of a holistic forage feeding plan that provides alternative options in case the pasture is in short supply or in overabundance. This planning should be done before the grazing season begins to ensure adequate and quality forage for the entire season.

In planning, be sure to review any notes taken during the last year. How did the pastures and hay ground perform? What were the environmental conditions? Was there a drought or was it real wet, etc.? Have the number of animals on pasture increased? If so, perhaps there is a need to re-assess the stock density for the paddocks. This can be done by matching the number of animals allotted to a specific paddock to the amount of available forage, grazing utilization rates, daily intakes, and length of grazing period. This evaluation is an essential factor for any grazing system to be successful. It is particularly true in a system that reaches for higher performance in their cattle, whether it is the growing heifer or the lactating cow.

There are several tools to assist in the determination of pasture quality and/or volume once the forages begin to grow in the spring. Some of these include pasture rulers, plate meters, and electronic gauges. When utilizing any of these tools, remember, as with soil sampling, accuracy is correlated with a consistency of the sampling technique. Just as crop producers can not accurately diagnose the condition of the corn field from the road neither can dairy producers diagnose the forage quality and availability from the ATV. It is important to take the time to get into the field and monitor the condition of the forages. With a grazing system, this is time off-set by not having to harvest these forages mechanically.

There are several benefits of assessment. However, the main reasons for assessing pasture are:

  1. to match animals’ requirements with pasture production;
  2. to achieve more precise supplementary feeding;
  3. for accurate feed planning;
  4. to more effectively manipulate pasture production and composition; and
  5. to ensure ground cover is sufficient to protect soil from rainwater run-off and to encourage water infiltration into soil.

Pasture assessments also help producers to identify specific areas to target management improvements that can be profitable and effective. For example, on low yielding pastures, could applying fertilizer improve production, or would introducing more productive forage species be a better solution?

Milk production is primarily determined by the consistency of daily feed intake. This is no different if feeding a silage based diet or a pasture based diet. For pasture based diets, forage availability is determined by height, density of sward and moisture content. Therefore, close monitoring of pasture and performance is essential to boost returns. Research from Pennsylvania and other states has shown that producers can save as much as $48 per cow or $80 per acre each year just by more accurately measuring and budgeting pasture forage. Certainly, this makes it well worth the time to conduct accurate and comprehensive evaluations on pasture forages.

In essence, pasture assessments provide producers with information needed to make informed decisions on grazing management. Assessments size up the condition of the pasture and identify strengths and weaknesses so management can be targeted to produce specific results. These repeated pasture assessments help to optimize forage production and evaluate the sustainability of pasture management systems.

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