NEPC 2013 Annual Meeting: Pasture Systems Design 2

Technical Session 1, Efficient Pasture Systems Design for Natural Features and Management Challenges continued with Rob DeClue, the second and last presenter in this session on pasture system design. Rob is Area Grazing Lands Management Specialist with the Chenago County Soil and Water Conservation District. The title of his presentation was Landscape, Animal, Plant, & Operational Challenges for Successful Grazing Assistance. His talk started out with the mindset of the farmer going into the challenge of pasturing livestock with a grazing system.

Production system change involves these real or imagined problems in the mind of the manager:

  • Lack knowledge
  • Unfamiliar
  • Fear of failure
  • Major consequences on finances

An often asked question is: How will I build winter feed inventory? This is easily taken care of in an management intensive grazing system during the springtime flush of grass growth. Set a target to harvest about half of the pasture acreage as hay or haylage as first cut. Grass growth is fast in the Spring so all of the pasture acres do not need to be utilized (and should not be – wastage high) for grazing. Set total pasture acreage target for the acres needed during the summer slump in cool season grass growth due to heat and sporadic, limited rainfall drawing down soil moisture reserves. Typically twice as many acres of pasture are needed in the summertime as in the spring.

The farmer needs to commit to an integrated system where all necessary components must be included and work together to achieve optimal production goals and cost efficiency. This includes a workable and accessible barnyard where dairy animals are held for milking and possibly fed some TMR before returning to the pasture for the main course. Care must be taken not to be so cost conscious that it involves dangerous cost cutting moves. Low cost fences, watering, laneways can be effective, but there are certain corners you can’t cut without cutting into profits when the corners cut lead to failures to adequately feed, water, and care for the grazing herd. Rob showed some examples of using inadequate substitute electrical equipment for powering electric fences such as poor insulators to string wire on posts or some unfortunate tree, utilizing low voltage rated insulated wire for fence lead-outs, and inadequate or inappropriate electrical grounds (latter causing stray voltage at the milking facility).

Follow-up support is essential to ensure the operator of the grazing system is comfortable with it or progressing in that direction. Without follow-up support at the outset, it can often result in discouragement and abandonment of the grazing system back to continuous pasturing or confinement feeding. Sources of grazing support are:

  • One-on-one professional field staff
  • Experienced local graziers (individuals & group/networks)
  • Grazing event opportunities
  • Books, periodicals, information sheets, Internet grazing websites and topic specific searches

Applying & Mastering the “Art” of grazing management is a constant iterative process for improvement requiring these elements that form a closed loop:

  • Monitor & record
  • Evaluate findings
  • Determine conclusions & necessary actions
  • Carry out appropriate adjustments
  • Observe response – if not satisfied, re-evaluate and take corrective actions.

The best custom written plan offers only an approximate starting point. The evaluation/inventory is not perfect since it is often difficult to predict forage yields accurately. Depending on how the pasture was formerly treated, response to better grazing management and inputs of soil amendments and fertilizers may take longer than anticipated or go beyond your wildest dreams. There are numerous variables such as weather extremes, insect attacks, plant or animal disease breakouts, ration adjustments for dairy cattle, price and availability of supplemental feeds, and failures of water or fencing systems. It is a dynamic system that must be kept under control with perception and quick response.

Rob asked the question: Where Do You Plan To? Sizing paddocks highly dependent on assessing forage productivity. However, accurately determining actual productivity is difficult. It is influenced by soil productivity (primarily soil available waterholding capacity to 40 inches or first root restrictive layer), fertility, sward composition, plant vigor, and type & intensity of grazing management applied.

Flood prone pastures are of particular concern as floodwaters are especially hard on fencing and can also harm the forage resource by contaminating it with silt, burying it, or scouring it out depending on water velocity at various points across the floodplain. Stresses on infrastructure include:

  • Moving water
  • Debris load (floating & submerged)
    • Tree trunks, roots, limbs, branches
    • Herbaceous leaves, stems, roots
    • Human trash, such as bottles, old tires, bags, wrappers, and cans
  • Scouring
  • Deposition

Using fences as an example, the following are some techniques and additional measures to consider to keep fence maintenance to a minimum in floodplain areas:

  • Use pin-lock insulators on posts
  • Deploy minimum number of permanent posts
  • Aligning parallel to projected flow
  • Employ spacers/battens in between posts
  • Identify weak link at especially troublesome points (floodgates or dropper wire assemblies): Requires additional measures to attain stability
    • More bracing
    • Longer posts & set deeper (or anchored)
    • Bed logs (prevent posts from tipping in the direction of flow if placed on the downstream side)

Feed supplementation of dairy cows must be accounted for when sizing paddocks. Depending on the amount of TMR fed to a grazing herd, forage allowance from pasture must be reduced accordingly. Care must be taken not to overfeed grazing cows with TMR before returning them to pasture. Consequence is paddocks are over-sized relative to needs if pasture forage mass estimate is accurate. As a result, pasture forage is wasted through trampling and soiling. If feed supplementation is an excessive portion of total diet, the consequences are the cost-benefit of grazing is questionable and the extremely high stocking rate degrades the forage resource (excessive traffic on plant crowns and eventually excessive potassium levels in the forage) and the soil resource (compaction and an overload of nutrients from dung and urine from all the imported feed in the herd’s gut). NRCS-NY 528 (Prescribed Grazing) requires grazing intake be a minimum 30% of total intake during the pasture season (mimics NOP pasture rule). This is a heavy reliance on supplemental feeding and should be avoided.

Supplemental feeding requires balancing rations. It is good to obtain timely, on-going, knowledgeable support from animal nutritionist. Be sure to have a solid buy-in on decision to graze livestock. Too often consolidation in the farm support industry may hamper getting help. Supplemental feeding can be done several ways to grazing livestock. As with water troughs, it is better to move supplemental feeding locations around to avoid creating a manure-laden barren spot in the pasture.

Implications of multi-species grazing or different animal classes in leader/follower grazing system need to be thought through. Fencing and watering type and design are determined by the most difficult to control and most vulnerable to water hazards. A mix of livestock creates more predator concerns. It drives up the cost of control. Achieving higher harvest efficiency with co-grazing or leader/follower grazing may risk stressing plant vigor and longevity if not managed well. It also may present some health challenges (disease or parasite) for the co-grazer or following group. Nutritional supplementation may have to be changed or tightly monitored (e.g, ionophores -equine/camelids, copper -sheep).

Establishing electric feed-points is important for fencing control between paddocks. Use electrified perimeter fence, or use an offset electrical wire on a non-electrified perimeter fence, for power source (most advantageous), or along a laneway electrified fence (make sure passage @ gates), or use an energizer at active paddocks only (must be self-contained; i.e., battery/solar powered). Posts must be set rock solid as high lateral forces are exerted where high tensile wire strands terminate or make a radical direction change. Otherwise, posts tip towards the strain, and can be pulled out over time. Use large diameter (5” black locust or pressure treated softwood) and set deep (at least 3.5’ down).

Be aware that livestock attractants, such as shade, salt blocks, water, mineral feeders, hay bunks, and breezy knolls, can cause nutrient hotspots, localized soil compaction, and loss of pasture sod since the livestock linger at these spots. For those attractants that can be moved about, reposition often.

Limit travel to watering sites to prevent livestock loitering at them in hot, humid weather. For large and small ruminants (non-lactating) maximum distance to water in a paddock is 800 feet. For large ruminants (lactating), swine, poultry, the maximum distance to water should be shorter, perhaps 600 feet. Using these maximum distances in humid areas influences animal behavior in a positive way.

  • Greatly reduces mobbing (whole herd or most go to water at once)
    • Water system design less expensive, only small troughs are needed. No mob to water.
    • Dominant animal(s) don’t “hoard” water (prevent others from going to trough)
    • Offers subordinates more opportunities to drink, dominant animals do not linger.
  • Increases time spent on profitable activities
    • Grazing
    • Resting
    • Ruminating
    • Reduces energy demand for walking and milling – increases milk flow and rate of gain

How do you go about installing water systems on rotational pasture? Provide capability and be willing to relocate water troughs between rotations. Keep paddocks rather small and squarish so the distance to water does not exceed maximum distance. Realize there is a trade-off between trough size and refill rate. Large troughs tend to be in a permanent location. Since they have more storage capacity, the fill rate can be rather slow without the trough being emptied by a thirsty herd. Gravity-fed pipeline is adequate. These permanent troughs often need to have an apron around them to keep soil protected and not end up being a mudhole in wet weather.

Travel distances to water are more likely to exceed optimal maximum distance at least from some paddocks. It is too cost prohibitive to install many of these troughs even if they are made of light-weight material. This also increases travel on some type of laneway. Small troughs can be quickly emptied, so they are better served with a pressurized pipeline system. Refill is almost instantaneous to prevent being emptied and tipped over by a frustrated animal. These troughs are portable (easily moved about), cheaper, and maintain short distances to water more easily as they can be moved to each individual paddock (preferred). One trough is the minimum needed when moving with paddock rotation. Move to new paddock before moving herd. Two troughs are better, they are alternated as the leading and trailing trough as livestock are moved each time.

For continuously stocked pasture, the fix is to offer water at numerous dispersed sites away from other attractants and environmentally sensitive areas, such as streams and seeps.

Average daily water intake for dairy replacement heifers on an intensive rotational pasture was 7.9 gallons per head in a study conducted in New York State in 1999. However, it varied from less than 2 gallons per day to almost 16 gallons due changes in temperature, rainfall, and cloud cover over a 56-day period. Pastured dairy livestock can drink from four primary sources, back at the farmstead at milking time, from the pasture water system, the pasture forage consumed (80% water), and from dew, rain, and frost or snow. Dairy cow peak demand for water is right after milking. Heat stress drives intake.

Water systems can vary based on developable sources of water and their elevation in relation to the paddocks being served. Where ponds or springs can be brought into service with a reliable season-long flow, gravity water flow is ideal with sufficient hydraulic head to deliver enough water to keep a trough full. However, a well and a pressurized system may be all that can be used to deliver a consistent, reliable flow rate. Well log information in New York is used to determine flow rate in gallons per minute deliverable to the trough furthest away. Peak instantaneous demand must be met. For lactating dairy cows this is 1 gallon per minute per 10 cows producing 80# of milk daily. Using that as a target, these elements must be determined: minimum flow, minimum pressure, pipe size, and trough capacity.

Once the source of water is decided upon, the design of the distribution network is next. A distribution network has these elements:

  • Pipelines
  • Line Valves
  • Watering Connection Points
  • Back-flow Prevention Devices

All components should present minimal resistance to targeted flow needed at the trough.

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