Planned Grazing Systems for Better Returns

There are few of us on farms that actively want to sit down and plan, i.e. make decisions. We would far rather do, since there is always so much on the list needing attention. So why is it that those who start to plan their grazing… become life long devotees to the process? And believe me they do, the data from MaiaGrazing makes clear that those who plan grazing, do it consistently and ongoing.

Why isn’t Planned Grazing the norm?

Planned grazing is not the norm for two reasons in my view, firstly it takes time and secondly it is pro-active. Most of us are too busy to be pro-active and thereby avoid a problem before it occurs, we seem much happier to deal with putting out the fires of life later than early.

This is about a progression from the basics of recording past grazes, to using a grazing chart to record and ‘see’ the grazing patterns of the past, to now planning future grazes and updating the plan as it becomes actual.  It is simply not possible to achieve this without a process or a tool of some kind to build the feedback loops that strengthens your decision making along the way.

It’s (not) the weather, stupid!

My experience in graze consulting is that most graziers who do NOT plan out their grazing for the next few months come to see the weather as the problem when things go astray. This is an important distinction. Those who plan their grazes and review along the way tend to manage for the way things unfold and be in a better position at the end, for the simple reason they see headaches ahead of time and therefore can resolve to deal with it in a timely manner such that it looks like they always intended it to be that way. Like gifted footballers, they make it look easy.

Put things in perspective for me what are we trying to do?

  1. A simple back of the envelope reconciliation when growth slows, of feed supply & demand to rough out how long the grass we have will last, or the inverse, how many stock will the feed supply on hand run until the growing season is assumed to start again. I.e. let’s do a pulse check of ‘are we ok’ to avoid an ‘oh dear’ moment.
  2. The specific allocation of mobs to paddocks, in a sequential order to optimise our goals at the time, be they plant recovery period, feed quality, animal impact for weed control, running down the feed we have or building it up, etc.

The simplest way to get started would be to simply sit down and estimate the feed available, per paddock at the end of the growing season and rough out how long (days grazing) it will last with current stock numbers… then do the inverse and work out what stock numbers the current feed estimate will support through until the typical growing season resumes. Explaining the maths here is not the goal, the principle is what matters and there are plenty of tools like MaiaGrazing available to do the calcs seamlessly for you.

This simple exercise alone will make it clear we could well be going into the coming season with an unrealistic number of stock or a real opportunity to buy well or retain more stock for longer.

The key message here is that ad-hoc grazing tends to work really well when the weather is benign and close to the ‘expected’, but otherwise there are going to be implications.

What is the problem that a Planned Grazing System solves?

Keeping it simple, the problem we want to avoid is running out of grass in an un-managed way. Whether we do this by design, intuition or accident, we will be:

  1. Building the maximum feed wedge or stack possible, by the end of the growing season, and
  2. Running that feed down during the non-growing season like a planned descent in an aircraft.

Yes, there is always more to it and there are a great many details, but the goal in grazing is to stay on top of the competing needs for having enough grass of enough quality (ie supply) to meet the nutritional needs of the livestock (demand) we live off in such way that promotes improved cycles of soil, plant and water ecology.

There are always competing needs for anything that is important, and it is no different in graze planning, where the tension is between needing more time to grow more grass (supply), while harvesting that grass at optimal quality (not too old… not too fresh) to get better production per animal (demand).

Feed Wedge Planned grazing System

In the growing season it is all about building the total feed quantity on hand whilst harvesting it at peak nutrition and allowing adequate recovery period to rebuild plant energy from solar panels before re-grazing.

In the closed, or non-growing, season the goal is to feel like the pilot off an aircraft with enough fuel (grass!) to reach the end of the season and avoiding a crash landing. Ideally, we will return to the growing season with some feed to spare which will aid the process of kicking off a new season and building the natural capital of the soils and everything within them.

In a nutshell, by allocating paddocks to a mob over a period of time we will quickly see if we are robbing Peter to pay Paul and are over or understocked – in advance – and hence able to make decisions early about overall stocking rate that would otherwise become obvious only in retrospect.

An Example to look at

As an example, we know we want to give the Cows the small group of paddocks below until Spring. Now taking as given that there needs to be thought into selecting these particular paddocks versus others, considering nutrition, proximity, water quality, etc, do we know it will work out?

holistic planned grazing chart

In our minds eye, that should be ok, because that’s what we normally do, but we don’t really know about this year… so we don’t really know except for guessing it will work out.

Whereas, if we look at it in a graze planning context below, we select those paddocks, for that time period, and we estimate the feed available* … we can very quickly see that something must give because the feed demand exceeds the available by over 50%.

Feed budgeting grazing system

(* remember you don’t have to be an expert to estimate feed available in a paddock. Just look up the last couple of grazes or the average of all winter grazes in the past for these to get an approximation)

As a result, we can quickly see we need to either:

  • add to the total area by taking some paddocks off another mob and add it to this mob …“ok but we haven’t got any spare paddocks to do that because they are already allocated?!”
  • change our assumptions about time, i.e. spring will come sooner? … “that seems a bit hopeful?”
  • reduce the mob size (demand), i.e. think about selling a few perhaps.

In this example, we take two paddocks that were put aside and add to the graze plan and now we have confidence we can get through to Spring with the Cows allocated to these paddocks, since it is now clearly less than 100% of carrying capacity.

We also decide to break it into two rotations, ie two grazes per paddock over the plan to reduce the time per graze and create a rest between grazes.

The result is that at the end of the first couple of grazes if we have to move sooner, or have more grass left behind, than is in the graze plan then we know we should review the graze plan and change our assumptions.

Feed budgeting Grazing systems

holistic planned grazing chart

This is what we mean by a feedback loop and it barely scratches the surface of the ease with which planning grazes changes your mindset around the allocation of feed to animals through time.

So what are the benefits of creating a graze plan?

  • The graze plan becomes a distinct record, a document that can be pulled down in future to compare to and re-use or improve on;
  • When we create graze plans for the whole property, we basically have the stocking rate to carrying capacity for the farm covered for that period of time. That is piece of mind beyond measure;
  • The rest of the team can see it! No more scribbles on a piece of paper about moves you want while away from the farm. The planned moves are visible to all on paper, and/or on their phone;
  • The graze plan turns uncertainty into an action that will never be perfect but it will be far easier to refine than ad-hoc changes on the go;
  • Most importantly it puts assumptions down that can be discussed and tested, deflecting stress and anxiety about stocking rate to a ‘plan’ instead of hoping. If the plan needs to change, so be it, we all find that easier than working out too late we didn’t have the conviction to decrease or increase stocking rate earlier.

Don’t over think it  

The real magic of graze planning is that we don’t have to over think it and worry if we got it right, yes choices matter but the net result is a feedback loop between us and the paddocks that quickly makes it obvious whether we are on track or not as we start moving through the plan. We can quickly see if we are out in our assumptions and review and revise and most importantly learn first hand in the process and get our eye in for guesstimates of days per graze and consumption etc.

Pasture mapping

This is the very REAL pleasure of graze planning! Feeling for the first time like you can talk the talk and have some sense of control over stocking rate because you are doing it and learning as you go instead of feeling like a 2nd class grazier needing to go to more training workshops.
 
Take the guess work out of grazing management
 

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