cows in field

Will you invest management time in your roots

Troy Bishopp discussing his management tools.

By Troy Bishopp

Added June 6, 2011. Bill Emmons from Cloudland Farm in Woodstock, Vermont made a good point about the connotation of resting pastures. "The reason farmers question rest is they seem to equate it with non-working, perhaps even laziness, and not being very efficient with a farm's resource. We need to call it something more positive -- say an investment in your grassland bank. That just sounds more business-like."

The grazing business doesn't run very well on weak plants and root systems caused by overgrazing or the dreaded second bite disease. The term overgrazing applies mostly to individual plants that get bitten too many times by an animal staying in a paddock too long. It also happens when a grazed plant is not allowed to fully recover from the last bite. Simply put, damage to a plant comes from reducing its energy by repeated pruning of the roots through continual defoliation of the leaves. Ain't no money in grazing dirt but we seem to think so.
I hate to admit it but I have overgrazed many times in the past, mostly from adopting "pill" grazing management paradigms. It is also very evident that many of my neighbor's pastures are receiving the same treatment, some to the point of bankruptcy. I don't blame the animals; I blame me for the situation because it was my lack of active management and clear goals of what I wanted to create.

Capturing solar dollars.

Why do we overgraze our most profitable solar collector? I think it is complacency and lack of serious grazing planning mostly; coupled with ingrained behavior (we have always done that) based on shortsighted, piecemeal goals and the need to cut expenses now. It takes a lot of discipline to stop long enough to think the whole grazing system through and consider the balances of finances, the environment and your family life into this web of decision-making.

This problem is usually addressed in grazing plans done by your agency partners for you, based on the law of averages and generally accepted practices. 15 days rest here, 30 days rest there, move the cows in sequential order, 1 thru 10, and feed more inputs to balance out the grass growth, etc. This planning process has gotten us quite far in the grazing management business, however many farmers like me have used it as a recipe or prescription without really monitoring if this advice was moving us towards our holistic goals.

Agricultural Consultant and Organic Farmer, Lisa McCrory, articulated that planning plant recovery periods is the "clincher" for most farms she works with to prevent the effects of overgrazing on the bottom line. In her training session I attended she also brought in many other important considerations like; actively monitoring and writing stuff down on a grazing chart, measuring dung beetle activity, extended grazing strategies, adding hedgerow dynamics and getting back to what works on your farm based on your goals. This is all good stuff I am wholeheartedly adopting as fast as I can and telling my grazing friends because growing a diverse, well-rooted plant community within a healthy covered ecosystem will insulate us from the input "squirrel cage".

When was the last time you had a farm meeting solely on planned grazing and going through all the scenarios that would leave your plants and their roots stronger? I enjoy the activity because it is based on managing towards what you want, with what you have at the farm. It makes you think and look harder at your farm as a whole system using your maps and a personal grazing monitoring chart to predict and guarantee you have quality feed all grazing season.

It's really the first time I have focused on how rest, residual heights and the timing of grazing will affect my triple bottom line. To look at it on paper every day is a powerful tool because I've never been very good at writing stuff down. I didn't respect my plant's sustainability by not knowing if I had rested it 10 days or 20. It's been an eye-opener delving into my inadequacies of using the "guess method".

Most farmers I know have been managing like crazy to maintain plants in a vegetative state all year long. This strategy tends to move towards a monoculture of excess protein and smaller root systems which we compensate with hay or other inputs. I have experienced a more complete feed by investing in my roots with growing a variety of grazing heights combined with the timing and impact of cows. The many considerations include early spring turnout heights, wintering areas fallowed for bird habitat, paddocks that need litter to raise the biological life and areas to stockpile or make hay. I am now comfortable having many different grazing recipes on the same land base depending on our goals.

At any one time I could be short grazing, tall grazing, mob grazing, winter grazing or just let the wildlife have it because I have thought through the consequences of my management in regards to the 4 ecosystem processes; the water cycle, the mineral cycle, energy flow and community dynamics. Investing in a rested plant with full root reserves captures more solar energy, more water, greater mineral transfer and much more flora and fauna diversity. Ian Mitchell-Innes has rightly coined this wealth generating system as "Biological Capital".

The bottom line to successful grazing management is to invest some time to relax and THINK about improving all your farm's resources through better decision-making. Profitability can be measured in many ways but it all starts with harvesting energy from the soil and plant dynamics. Will you take the opportunity this season to save some roots for your grassland bank account?

Grazing monitoring charts and planning worksheet developed by Central New York RC&D are available and free for download from the following website:

Troy Bishopp manages Bishopp Family Farm in Deansboro, NY; works for the Madison Co. SWCD/Upper Susquehanna Coalition as their regional grazing specialist; is a project leader for a NESARE funded professional development grazing training project through the CNY RC&D Council in Norwich and is President of Mohawk Valley Toastmasters. He can be reached at (315) 824-9849 or and maintains this website: