Whenever I am asked a question about the right way to graze a pasture or how management of a pasture should be, I usually bring the conversation around to goals fairly quickly.  Without a clear idea of where we want to go, it’s hard to plan for the road ahead. As we head into this year’s grazing season, it’s a great time to take a look at the goals we have for the land we own or rent.

Having a clear picture of what goals we want to pursue is important, because unfortunately not all goals we may have for a piece of ground are fully compatible.  Take for example wildlife habitat and grazing efficiency.  Improving grazing efficiency allows us to put more animals in a pasture without the harm of over grazing by spreading out the grazing pressure more uniformly and providing longer periods of rest.  To achieve this producers might utilize more water sources and cross fencing.  The resulting more uniform grazing increases grazing efficiency, but can have some unintended consequences.

By grazing everything evenly across a pasture, species diversity may be reduced over time as we select for those species that can best withstand the quick uniform grazing pressure being applied.  Along with this shift in plant species, structure in the pasture, variation of taller and shorter plants side by side is decreased.  While some wildlife species prefer this more uniform landscape, many of our grassland birds do not.  They need variation to hide from predators and find safe places to build a nest.

While some novel solutions for these opposing goals may exist, in general, maximizing the number of animals a pasture can support clashes with a goal of improving wildlife habitat.  Both are great goals to have, but we cannot manage for them both at the same time.

Sometimes, the system we work in limits our goals.  I just listened to an interview between a New Zealand farmer and Oregon rancher.  The New Zealand producer shared how they use multi-species grazing to get grass height to a level that promotes legume growth.  By varying between sheep and cattle at different times of the year, they can keep grass growth low enough that the legumes seeded in their pastures get enough sunlight and nutrients to maintain good vigor.  In doing so, the legumes improve pasture quality and provide nutrients to the surrounding grasses, reducing the annual fertilizer bill on these intensively managed grasslands.

The Oregon rancher acknowledged the great way this management worked in New Zealand, but questioned its usefulness on his operation.  Native rangeland in Oregon is composed of primarily bunch grasses that can handle grazing once in the season, but due to their growth habit, need to produce seed for reproduction, and limited precipitation would be quickly pushed out if grazed to a uniform height consistently throughout the year.  By managing for legumes, even if they would improve the pasture in the short term, the long-term damage would be catastrophic.

Setting appropriate and clear goals for our grazing gives us a sense of direction and purpose. When the landowner and the livestock owner are the same, this process can be fairly straight forward.  However, on leased land, the process gets a bit more complicated.  With multiple parties involved, the primary goals may not be the same and conflict can result.  If the landowner wants to increase plant diversity and the renter wants to squeeze a few more head in, we are asking for trouble.

Clearly sharing goals both ways and having a conversation about how both parties’ ideas can be realized is critical to preventing conflict and misunderstandings.  Landowners can offer to adjust rents and cover costs of improvements that may not directly impact the renter’s bottom line.  Renters can build trust by providing regular updates and even photos or videos of pasture conditions when questions arise, or conditions change to improve communication.  Ultimately, the best results occur when tenants and landowners can develop a shared vision for the property and work to meet shared goals together.

Spring is a busy time of the year for us all.  In the midst of the hustle and bustle take some time to reevaluate your goals for pasture as you turn out to grass, or even set some if you haven’t done so yet.  Clarifying your vision for the future, especially in landlord/tenant relationships will be more than worth the time and effort.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: ben.beckman@unl.edu