Diversity in Grazing Animal Operations

Last week was the 18th Annual Nebraska Grazing Conference.  The theme this year was being a steward of the land and managing for diverse plant and wildlife populations through the incorporation of multiple grazing species. There were three speakers this year that spoke about how bringing sheep, goats or both species into their cattle operation made their business more profitable and more ecologically diverse.

The first speaker was a fellow University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources graduate, Sage Askin of Askin Land and Livestock LLC.  He introduced the idea that sheep and goats are browsers as opposed to grazers and therefore, consume different species of rangeland plants than beef cattle.  Mr. Askin choose to utilize sheep, having descended from species naturally adapted to cold dry climates, in his operations to match the harsh Wyoming environment. In his speech, Mr. Askin demonstrated that sheep consume more of the woody, brush plants available on the range and less of the high-quality grasses that cattle prefer.  He concluded that under most circumstances, sheep would not be competing with cattle for feedstuffs, and therefore sheep only added value to the business.  His rule of thumb was that a wyoming producer could run one sheep for every cow already on the land, however he did caution to be conservative when starting to add another species and to be aware of the grazing environment.  If grasslands are more prevalent, as opposed to the mixed range landscape where Askin Land and Livestock operates, sheep will be put in a position to compete with the cattle and that will not benefit either species. Mr. Askin also spoke about utilizing sheep as a creative solution to other agricultural production issues.  His example was a haying operation that was having a difficulty with loosing yield damaged fields due to the elk herds.  Mr. Askin moved some sheep to browse near the hay operation mitigating the elk problem, because elk do not like to graze where sheep are.

The second speaker on multi-species grazing was Brock Terrell of Terrell Farms LLC and Terrell Ranch LLC.  Mr. Terrell added sheep to his already highly diversified operation which includes cow calf, stocker cattle, backgrounding, hay, forage and row cropping.  He showed the benefits of adding sheep to his operation were monetary, ecological, and familial.  Economically, he was able to spread labor and overhead expenses across multiple enterprises on his operation, and he had two marketable products, wool and lambs.  He also reaped benefits of breaking parasite cycles through the varied species on pasture, utilizing more plant biomass to produce meat product, and increased range health through grazing pressure being put on both brush and grasses.  The children on the Terrell Ranch were also able to be involved in the sheep operation.  Mr. Terrell emphasized that the sheep operation was a low labor, low cost enterprise with high value end products and diverse marketing opportunities, providing him with more flexibility in decision making for his farm and ranch.

The third speaker was Mike Wallace who has extensive experience with a masters degree from the University of Kentucky and having managed research groups at the University of Illinois and the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.  Today Mr. Wallace owns and operates a multi-species grazing operation called the Double M.  Mr. Wallace has reclaimed previously dryland crop ground as pastures filled with warm and cool season grasses and legumes, as well as abandoned cattle feedlots that grow mostly weedy forbes.  Mr. Wallace’s presentation showed how all three species, sheep, goats and cattle can graze and browse together on the same pasture taking advantage of a diverse variety of available forages.  Like the previous speakers, he too saw economical advantages and ecological benefits of utilizing multiple grazing species on the same operation and even in the same pastures.  Mr. Wallace takes a holistic management approach and utilizes planned rotational grazing with small paddocks and plant rest periods.  Mr. Wallace also uses his sheep and goat herds as a unique solution to occurring issues in pastures.  The example he showed was using goats to control cedar encroachment.

Overall the key point is that multiple grazing species can benefit the operation economically, ecologically and can be used to solve unique issues in a creative way.  The other speakers in the grazing conference were mostly concerned with monitoring of range land and pastures. Monitoring can come in many different forms, record keeping of grazing and resting pastures, taking photos to track changes, visual observation and notes, and taking various samples for numerical data.  Ward Laboratories, Inc. can help with forage quality samples and soil health samples, which can be used to make supplementation decisions and track range and pasture health overtime respectively.

Spring Calving and Magnesium: 5 Risk Factors for Grass Tetany

As they say, “spring has sprung!” That means the birds are out chirping, summer is on its way, baby calves are on the ground and lush, green pastures ready for grazing.  While this does paint a picturesque image, cattlemen know there’s a danger in those beautiful, green spring grasslands: a nutritional disorder known as Grass Tetany, Grass Staggers or Hypomagnesaemia.  Grass Tetany is a deficiency of magnesium in a cow’s body that causes them to stagger, look alert and become easily excitable and often results in death.  Magnesium is a required mineral for beef cattle.  It is involved in many enzyme activations and therefore important biological processes.  Magnesium is particularly involved in nerve and muscle impulse transmissions. There are 5 risk factors for developing this deficiency:

  1. Age or Maturity of the Cows

Older cows that have produced 2 or more calves in prior calving seasons are more at risk to develop a magnesium deficiency during lactation.  As a beef cow moves from the gestational to the lactational physiological state, magnesium requirements increase from 0.12% to 0.2% of the dry matter intake.  Older cows have a more difficult time mobilizing stored magnesium from bone to meet these increased requirements.  In beef cattle 65-70% of the body’s magnesium is stored in the bone. While the diet may technically meet requirements, without mobilization of stored magnesium grass tetany can develop.  More mature cows have more difficulty with this biological process.

  1. Fertilization Protocol of the Pasture

In soils, the fertilization protocol can greatly affect the minerals available in the grasses grown on that pasture.  High levels of potassium, nitrogen and to a lesser extent phosphorous in the soil can interfere with a plant’s ability to absorb magnesium.  This creates a forage that is low in magnesium and high in potassium and nitrogen.  Therefore, it is recommended that pasture fertilization protocols be managed with the use of soil testing at Ward Laboratories Inc. to prevent over use of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) fertilization.

  1. Manure Management on the Pasture

Similar to over fertilization of pasture ground, over accumulation of manure from previous grazing seasons can also result in decreased magnesium in the grasses produced. Manure is going to add nitrogen, organic acids, and long chained fatty acids to the soil, which will also decrease the absorption of magnesium by growing grasses.  Resting a pasture,that has a high manure load, can help alleviate this risk for the next grazing occurrence.

  1. Species of Grasses

Plants deficient in magnesium tend to be rapidly growing cool season grasses.  Some species commonly involved with magnesium deficiency are orchard grass, rye grass, timothy grass, fescue grass, crested wheatgrass, brome grass, and small grain producing varieties such as oats, barley or triticale.  To decrease the risk of developing Grass Tetany, it has been recommended that producers introduce legumes to the pasture at a rate greater than 30% since species, such as alfalfa, are not typically deficient in magnesium with the NRC average being 0.37% of dry matter.

  1. Forage Nutrients

Pasture grasses with dry matter mineral concentrations of less than 0.2% magnesium and greater than 3.0% potassium are known to cause Grass Tetany.  Just like in soil, excess potassium in the diet interferes with magnesium absorption and forces cows to rely on mobilization of stored magnesium for lactation.  You can send your forage samples to Ward Laboratories Inc. to test for mineral concentrations to determine if your forage matches that profile.  If so, feeding a high magnesium free choice mineral may be necessary.  Magnesium concentrations in those minerals typically range from 8-12%.  Magnesium Oxide is typically the compound added to the mineral mix and is unfortunately unpalatable and therefore, as a producer if you may need to get creative with how you are going to get that magnesium into those cows, for example mixing it in with a protein supplement if free choice mineral intake is low.

In conclusion, there are 5 risk factors for development of Grass Tetany: maturity of cows, fertilization protocol on pasture, manure on pasture, species of grasses and forage mineral concentrations.  Ward Laboratories Inc. can help you manage your pasture with soil testing and your forage with feed analysis.