Year-round grazing is about summer management, not winter feeding

When livestock producers and ranchers think about year-round grazing, most think about winter feeding strategies — bale grazing, swath grazing and more.

But Steve Kenyon, custom grazer at Busby, Alta., says winter grazing is more about how you manage pastures in the growing season.

Kenyon, who runs Greener Pastures custom grazing on over 3,500 acres, says that the focus needs to be on soil health and well-planned paddocks to extend grazing late into the fall or early winter and to begin as early as possible in the spring.

For Kenyon, extending the grazing season hinges on a resilient growing system with living soil, high in organic matter for excellent water holding capacity and an active soil microbial population.

“We grow the soil from the plants, not the other way around,” Kenyon says, while presenting at the recent Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association virtual conference.

Greener Pastures runs on five principles, each complex enough in its own right; but collectively they all work together to achieve the goal of thriving, productive perennial pasture. These are:

  • Build the water cycle: Past failed civilizations failed because of a broken water cycle. The goal is to reduce runoff, and improve the effective rainfall (total rainfall – rainfall lost to runoff = effective rainfall). Keeping water where it lands is about building soil “armour,” he says, and limiting evaporation. Plant cover protects the soil, and healthy soil acts as a sponge to slow down water infiltration. Better water management equals more effective plant utilization. Wetlands, creeks, and swamps, are all part of the water cycle and they’re important for water, but also for our flora and fauna (more on the importance of those in a moment).
  • Harvest the sun: Canada has, on average, about a 4.5 month growing season, but desired species aren’t always necessarily growing that whole time. Kenyon says he plans grazing well ahead, so that  as soon as the temps are conducive, plants are there to capture the sun and begin growing.  “I want water and nutrients available and a plant growing and ready to take off, ” he says. All of this adds up to drought resilience (which works into the water cycle). Bare soil reflects light back (cool concept: albedo effect), and we don’t want to lose that sunlight.
  • Nutrient cycling: Matter cannot be created or destroyed. There’s only so much available soil N on earth, how do you get more into your soil? Same with carbon. Cycling only really works in a livestock/grazing situation. Grain production exports a significant amount of nutrients vs. livestock that leave 80 per cent behind. Get that manure out there.
  • Build the biology: If you can build the biology, you get the fertility for free. “Soil microbes all work for me, but they work for room and board,” Kenyon says. They need food, water, and shelter — through living roots, water availability, organic matter, urine and manure. There  are decomposers, nutrient traders, pathogens/predators, and N- and pollutant-cyclers.
  • Use a poly-culture of plants: This point is often overlooked, he says, but because he is growing a diverse soil biology, he needs a diverse crop mix to feed that, because of rooting depth, and soil/plant interactions. “Monoculture is not how nature works; pollinators need flowers all season,” he says, and soil microbes need tended to all year, too.

Those five concepts in action look something like this:

  • Grazing on a “one bite” system. Animals should not be grazing a paddock when the plants have started to re-grow.
  • Adequate rest, recovery, and regrowth of each paddock before animals are returned.
  • Valuing the animal impact. Animal impacts are both physical (#hoovesnotiron) and biological (manure, urine, and saliva.) Kenyon says there’s a whole world of  herbivore-soil biology interaction that we’re only beginning to understand, but that we can’t underestimate the power of soil microbes, and the importance of hooves creating plant-to-soil contact.
  • Stock density has to be high enough to get good plant utilization, but not so high that the first point is gone against. With higher stock density, animals work more like a haybine, trampling and eating everything easily and without selecting only their favourite plants. It also means they spread manure and urine more evenly.
  • Build that soil armour! Soil needs to be covered, fed, and nurtured. Things that degrade soil armour include tillage and over-grazing.

Kenyon says that following these principles is the foundation to extending the grazing season as long as possible. How you achieve these goals is going to look different for every farm, he says. He’s developed paddock design and species mixes based on where he farms, and this might look different depending on available land, climate, and more.

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