Easy steps to assessing pasture productivity

Farm Forum

It looks like winter has finally arrived in parts of eastern South Dakota with the recent cold snap and snow fall. The importance of water management on pastures has been a topic we’ve been spending a good deal of time on during this drought period. I’ve covered the importance of residual vegetation and structure to enhance snow catch in recent articles, and we had a good number of producers attend our seminar on water management at the Watertown Winter Farm show. Remember, the simple key is that to make a plant grow you need leaf area to catch sunlight and to support your root structure. You need roots to capture water and support your leaves. When you remove over 50% of the leaf structure, things start to go downhill. This recent snowfall should help you assess whether you are leaving your pastures in healthy condition in the fall to take advantage of winter moisture. Take a drive around and check you pastures. See how much snow you’ve caught on your pasture hills versus how much blew into the valleys. This simple assessment will help you adjust how/where/when you graze in coming years.

Assessing your pasture productivity need not be a daunting task. Some simple tools coupled with a bit of accessible data can get you started. The first and most important step is simply giving yourself a chance to ‘see’ how much grass your pastures produce. To do this, small and inexpen

sive grazing exclosures work best. Exclosures can be constructed with a variety of materials… anything that can create a small area that livestock cannot graze. The system I prefer involves cutting a 16 ft. cattle panel into 4 smaller panels (be sure to cut the tails as short as possible). I then connect the panels with two carabineers or threaded chain links on 3 of the 4 corners. This allows the exclosure to fold up accordion style and lay flat in the bed of a pickup. I then place two t-posts on opposite corners and wire the exclosure to the posts with #9 wire, leaving wire tails long enough to easily do this by hand. Wires can be re-used and all you need for tools is a post pounder. These exclosures are easy to make, transport, and install. They are light and cheap. I try to place a few of these in each pasture in areas that are representative of the entire pasture. Even if you don’t eventually clip and weigh the vegetation at the end of the growing season, the exclosure will allow you to visually see how much vegetation you are producing compared to how much your livestock are removing. In a traditional rotation, the exclosure can help you determine when you’ve reached your harvest goal and when it’s time to move.

Don’t forget about the Managing Drought Risk Series we’re hosting at all the SDSU Extension Regional Centers. The next seminar in the series will be on Wed., Feb. 27 at 10 a.m. Come to your local Extension Regional to see the presentation and to learn more about monitoring and setting critical dates for decision making during drought.

Finally, it’s a great time to get out and walk the land as coyotes and fox are pairing up and much wildlife is on the move looking for either a meal or a mate. Also, take a kid along. Walking pasture creeks and valleys can be a fun time for kids to track small mammals in the new snow.

Email me with questions at peter.bauman@sdstate.edu or call the Watertown office at 886-5140.