This story also appears in our University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Center Magazine. Stop by your local Research Center to pick up a copy!
Developing and evaluating a variety of forage systems for beef cattle is the focus of the research conducted at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Forage Systems Research Center (FSRC) near Linneus.
Grazing studies are a key component of this research. FSRC conducts those studies with cow-calf pairs, weanlings and yearling steers and heifers – and has since the 1970s.
While there are several ways to graze cattle, FSRC practices rotational grazing across its 1,200-acre farm. Years of research at FSRC has provided enough evidence to show the many benefits of rotating cattle in a grazing scenario, including having available forage and producing a higher quality forage.
“It’s extremely important to keep higher quality forage in front of your animals,” said David Davis, superintendent at FSRC. “We’ve seen the advantages of rotational grazing, such as having more nutrients spread across the landscape through manure distribution.
“Also, it’s important to allow regrowth of your forage. Cattle perform better when they have a more quality forage in front of them. If you rotate your cattle, you allow that forage to grow and strengthen and be of a higher quality.”
Accumulated forage can also be stored in case of a drought or slow period or for winter grazing.
Rotational grazing, or management-intensive grazing, includes dividing the field into paddocks and allowing cattle to graze in one of those paddocks until the forage reaches a certain residual height. The cattle are then rotated to another paddock while the one that was just grazed has an opportunity to grow and recover from grazing.
“The goal is to keep the animals moving,” Davis said.
While other grazing methods do exist, including continuous grazing, rotational grazing offers the best option in terms of land regeneration. Continuous grazing keeps the cattle in one area over an extended period of time. Forages don’t have an opportunity to revive since the cattle feed on the plants until they are nearly gone.
Jim Gerrish, owner of American GrazingLands Services, LLC, provides consulting and speaking services related to grazing. Gerrish was a faculty member at the University of Missouri for more than 20 years, helping FSRC become a nationally recognized research facility.
Gerrish’s research showcased the positives related to rotating cattle throughout a field instead of keeping them grazing on the same paddock for months at a time.
“Management-intensive grazing, when well-run, increases the productivity of a field,” Gerrish said.
Gerrish said the two terms to focus on when it comes to grazing is residual and flexibility. Residual refers to the living green plant material left behind after grazing. If more residual is left after grazing, the plants can regrow quicker with the help of photosynthesis. Flexibility is important because landowners have to be patient while the forage grow back. It’s not always a quick process
Rotational grazing is a very adaptive management style.
“Change is always a part of agriculture,” Gerrish said. “The climate changes, the markets change. Being able to adapt is incredibly important.”
The grazing work that FSRC has done throughout the years also led to the development of an annual three-day grazing school, which began in 1990. Gerrish was one of the co-founders of the school.
“We realized that it was hard to fit everything in a 15-minute talk during a field day or even an hour conversation during an event,” Gerrish said. “Grazing and all of its components are very complex. You really can’t cover everything in less than three days.
“There is also a big hands-on component to this school. Three days actually allows us to see results and review the projects that we set up.”
The school covers a number of valuable topics relating to grazing, including matching the correct forage to a herd, livestock class, water systems, fencing systems, plant growth, morphology and soil fertility. Each plays an important role in the grazing system.
“You name it and we probably touch on it,” Davis said. “It’s a well-rounded course.”
When the class originally opened, educating producers and landowners was the main focus.
“There were years where we had up to five grazing schools in a calendar year,” Davis said. “We had to limit attendance to around 60 people – and that’s just because that’s all our classroom would hold. We had several thousand individuals come through. It was pretty popular.”
With FSRC’s grazing school popularity, several other regional grazing schools started to form. During the past 10 years, FSRC has evolved its school into a ‘teaching the teacher’ format. The school is now offered to extension agents, agency individuals and other grazing school leaders who teach their own schools.
“The goal is to reaffirm the basics and prepare everyone for their own schools,” Davis said. “It’s important to send the same message, and that’s why we bring everyone back – to get on the same page. It’s human nature to develop bias. We want to bring everyone back to the basics.”
FSRC uses a variety of forages during its grazing studies. Endophyte-free fescue, sun hemp and alfalfa are just a few of the forages FSRC has conducted grazing studies on.
“We collect a variety of data during these studies, including plant growth and livestock performance,” Davis said.
Davis and Gerrish both encourage livestock owners to give rotational grazing a try. Just like any other system, it takes time for results to show themselves.
“It does take some hard work, but from the work we’ve done, there are several positives with rotational grazing,” Davis said. “Just give it a try and see how it goes. We’re always happy to answer any questions when it comes to grazing.”