Grazing School provides hands-on learning opportunity

Craig Roberts, forage specialist at MU, explains how to use a grazing stick to estimate forage quality and quantity

On a warm fall morning, aspiring ranchers and agricultural professionals gathered near Linneus, Mo., for the 2011 Management Intensive Grazing workshop.

The workshop combines field exercises and classroom instruction designed to expose participants to all the considerations of rotational grazing, from nutrient cycling and weed management, to balancing costs and benefits and developing a complete grazing plan for a farm. At the conclusion of the workshop, participants presented field plans to their classmates and instructors.

Megan Ordway is a soil conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Linn, Mo., and she also raises beef cattle with her boyfriend. Ordway said she’ll put what she learned to work on her own farm as well as be able to advise landowners about the ins and outs of rotational grazing. She joins a group of more than 700 people who have attended the three-day workshops held at the Forage Systems Research Center since 1997.

Participants headed to the pasture after only an hour in the classroom. After looking at five red Angus cross heifers, they estimated the average weight of their five-head heard. Their task was to allocate an area of pasture that their herd would graze to three inches by the next day.

“It’s a real-life scenario and forces them to consider typical intake rates and generate all types of questions,” said Craig Roberts, professor of plant sciences at MU and state forage specialist.

Researchers at the Center have years of forage studies to share. The Center is the largest outdoor laboratory of its type in the eastern half of the United States, and research began at there in 1965. It’s part of a network of 20 research centers around the state at which the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources conducts impactful research benefitting Missourians.

Mark Kennedy, state grassland conservationist for NRCS, outlined the broad reasons to adopt rotational grazing: greater legume persistence, better nutrient distribution leading to reduced need for applying nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, increased forage quality, increased carrying capacity, reduced erosion and improved soil quality. It also helps with feed budgeting and allows producers to stretch their forages longer—especially important during a dry year, he said.

Kennedy said the system allows the animals to do more work, which means more free time for producers.

“It’s been a constant since the 1990s, pasture is the least expensive way of supplying a unit of energy to ruminant livestock,” Kennedy said. “Ninety-five percent of what it takes for us to grow grass is free and comes from the atmosphere: sunshine, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.”

Learning to allocate the proper amount of pasture is a cornerstone of rotational grazing.  Instructors grade the class on their in-the-field allocations each day. Dave Davis, superintendent of Forage Systems Research Center, said groups almost always allocate too much pasture their first day, but by the third day, both groups in this year’s class earned As.

“The entire school was beyond any expectation and was the best value in training I have ever experienced,” said Patrick Gant, who recently purchased 67 acres in Gasconade County and plans to have stocker cattle and goats grazing there by next fall. “Given the information gained from the instructors, guest producers, field exercises, open discussions and the one-on-one sharing of ideas, I’m confident that we will develop and operate successful MIG (Management Intensive Grazing) operation on our new farm.”

Gant said fencing, establishing a water system, and evaluating and improving field fertility are his first priorities. He’s asked regional conservation experts to look at his property to help inform his plan this fall.

Like many of the participants, Andy McCorkill has a personal and professional interest in management intensive grazing. McCorkill recently started working as a livestock specialist for MU Extension.  “It is considered one of the best grazing workshops in the nation, and it’s right in our backyard,” McCorkill said. “I gained new insight that will be useful in passing information on to the producers I serve, and being a cow/calf producer myself, I will also use information gained to improve management in my own operation.”

To learn about future workshops, contact Dave Davis at