If you want to get the most out of your pastures, measure forage dry matter content before and after livestock graze them. This is the most effective way of managing an intensive grazing system. That’s because this process allows you to determine how much forage dry matter is available in a pasture paddock, and once that is estimated, you can figure out how many animals should be grazed for a given period of time.
“Pasture measurement will help you make decisions about how to best use pasture paddocks and over time will provide a trend of how much forage dry matter is being produced per week,” says Rory Lewandowski, an Ohio State University Extension educator in agriculture and natural resources. This type of information can help you plan your livestock rotation for periods of rapid growth as well as periods of slow growth. The trend can provide an early warning system in a drought year and help you plan accordingly.
Here are some strategies to take pasture measurements:
Measure a paddock due to be grazed on a weekly basis.
This will help to give you an idea about your rotation speed. If you are consistently measuring 2,400 to 3,000 pounds of forage dry matter per acre in paddocks about to be grazed, this indicates the rest period has been long enough, says Lewandowski. “If forage dry matter is less than 2,200 pounds per acre, then rotation speed should be slowed down to allow the pasture more time to recover and grow.”
Measure the paddock before and after animals are turned out.
These additional measurements will give you information about how you are managing plant residual, an important part of how quickly a plant recovers from a grazing pass. Most pastures should be managed so there is 1,200 to 1,400 pounds of forage dry matter after animals have grazed, notes Lewandowski. “The other advantage of this strategy is that you will get a good idea of pasture growth rate in terms of how much dry matter is being added per acre each week.”
To take pasture measurements, the most economical option is to use a pasture stick. The current pasture stick model being used in Ohio has a scale to measure forage height, a scale to estimate forage density, a table of pounds of dry matter per inch for various pasture forage types, information about length of grazing rotations, and information about calculating the pounds of dry matter available for grazing.
Here are the basic steps involved to use the grazing stick:
Measure pasture height in 20 to 30 random areas of the paddock. Record those heights.
Add the measurements together and then divide that total by the number of measurements. This will give you average pasture height.
Estimate pasture density using the dot scale on the pasture stick. This will allow you to estimate the pounds of dry matter per inch.
Multiply the average height (in inches) by the pasture density (pounds of dry matter per inch). This will give you the total dry matter per acre in that paddock.
Subtract the amount of residual dry matter you want to leave in the paddock. This is plant height after grazing times the pounds of dry matter per inch. “If you plan for a 3- to 4-inch residual, 1,200 to 1,400 pounds is about right,” said Lewandowski. Consider the result of total dry matter minus residual dry matter to be the forage available for grazing.
Figure out the amount of utilizable forage. All of the forage available for grazing will not actually get grazed. There will be waste. The smaller the paddock size and the fewer days animals spend in that paddock the higher the grazing efficiency. If you are moving animals every three to four days, use a 60 percent grazing efficiency to start with, said Lewandowski. Multiply the available forage dry matter by the grazing efficiency expressed as a decimal. For example: 1,500 pounds of dry matter times 0.60 equals 900 pounds of utilizable forage dry matter per acre.
Figure out the livestock need in pounds of dry matter per day. Most livestock will consume between 2.5 to 3 percent of their body weight in dry matter per day, says Lewandowski. You will need to know the average body weights of your livestock to get an accurate figure. Multiply the dry matter per day requirement for an individual animal by the total number of animals that will graze in that paddock.
Figure out what the paddock can support. Divide the utilizable forage by the livestock requirement to get how many days of grazing the paddock will provide.
Make adjustments based on the measurement calculations.