Planned Grazing Systems for Better Returns

There are few of us on farms that actively want to sit down and plan, we would far rather do. As there is always so much on the list needing attention. So why is it that those who start to plan their grazing, become lifelong 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 proactive. Most of us are time poor and thereby avoid problem solving before the problem 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 and ‘seeing’ the grazing patterns of the past. To now planning future grazes and updating the plan as it becomes actual.  It is not feasible to achieve this without a process or tools. Something 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 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 can foresee headaches and can resolve it in a timely manner. In such a way 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. Like 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 estimate the feed available, per paddock at the end of the growing season. Also, how long (days grazing) it will last with current stock numbers. Then work out what stock numbers the current feed estimate will support through until the typical growing season resumes. The principle is what matters, not the maths. There are plenty of tools like MaiaGrazing available to do the calculations seamlessly for you.

This simple exercise can make it clear you may 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 can work well when the weather is predictable, However, if it’s not there are going to be implications.

What is the problem that a Planned Grazing System solves?

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, but the goal in grazing is to stay on top of the competing needs. Like having enough quality grass (i.e. supply) to meet the nutritional needs of the livestock (demand). Also living in such way that promotes improved cycles of soil, plant and water ecology.

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

Feed Wedge Planned grazing System

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

In the 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 safely. Ideally, we will return to the growing season with some feed to spare. This will aid with kicking off a new season and building the natural capital of the soils and everything within them.

By allocating paddocks to a mob over a period of time we will quickly see if we are over or understocked in advance. Hence being able to make decisions early about overall stocking rate that would otherwise become obvious only in hindsight.

An Example to look at

As an example, we know we want to give the Cows the small group of paddocks below until Spring. Taking into consideration these paddocks versus others, nutrition, proximity, water quality, etc.

holistic planned grazing chart

We think, that should be ok, because that’s what we normally do. However, we don’t really know about this year. Other than guessing it will work out, we cannot be certain.

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. Look up the last couple of grazes or the average of all winter grazes in the past 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. Now we have confidence we can get through to Spring with the cows allocated to these paddocks. It is now clearly less than 100% of carrying capacity.

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

Reviewing the graze plan will allow us to be aware of the need to change our assumptions. Due to having to move sooner, or having more grass left behind, etc.

Feed budgeting Grazing systems

holistic planned grazing chart

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

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;
  • Creating a graze plan for the whole property provides us with the farms stocking rate to carrying capacity for that period. 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 although 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 realising to 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. However, the net result is a feedback loop between us and the paddocks. This quickly makes it clear whether we are on track or not as we start moving through the plan. We can see if we are out in our assumptions while reviewing and revising. Most importantly we learn firsthand in the process and get our eye in for estimations of days per graze and consumption etc.

Pasture mapping

This is the very REAL pleasure of graze planning! You can feel like you can talk the talk and have some sense of control over stocking rate. Due to actually doing it and learning as you go. Instead of feeling like a 2nd class grazier needing to attend more training workshops.

Take the guess work out of grazing management

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