In the spring, livestock owners’ fancy lightly turns to thoughts of pasture management. With all the rain in Upstate South Carolina this spring, though, it’s more like mud management.
“Mud management is a problem,” said Cassie LeMaster, a Clemson University Extension Service livestock agent. “The kind of trouble we’re seeing in our pastures this spring reminds us of the importance of putting solutions in place beforehand.”
You can’t stop the rain. But there are some tried-and-true ways of managing its effects on the pasture your livestock depend on.
Nearly 100 horse and cattle owners came to an evening workshop in Spartanburg for a recent workshop where Cassie and her husband and fellow Extension agent, Chris, shared some of those solutions. Mud was on everybody’s mind.
“If your critters are walking belly deep in mud, they are not gaining weight, no matter how good the feed,” said Steve Higgins, director of environmental compliance at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and a guest speaker at the workshop.
“Livestock owners deal with lots of issues: herd health, genetics, reproduction, handling facilities. But those account for only about 30 percent of the cost of raising livestock,” he said. “The rest comes from environmental factors. The environment is important.”
Feed alone accounts for about half the cost of producing livestock, so anything that interferes with growing grass can present a serious financial problem to animal owners.
“Soil nutrients have probably migrated because of all this rain,” Cassie LeMaster said. “You will want to take special care this year to assess your soil fertility.”
In the long run, the experts agree that building a containment system for feeding cattle and horses is the best option. Assuming a cow eats three round bales a season — roughly two percent of her body weight daily — building a sheltered containment system for hay saves roughly $100 per animal.
The LeMasters and Higgins displayed a variety of types of feed containment systems tested by Extension agricultural engineers and animal scientists and ranging from the inexpensive to the elaborate.
But of all the options to repair and protect a pasture, “the most expensive option is to do nothing,” Higgins said. “Your cattle are going to lose weight if you don’t address the problem. Whether you build a pad in feeding areas or not, you’re still paying for it. Mud needs to be addressed.”
Threats to your soil and grass can come from a variety of sources. Compression from truck and tractor tires and ruts from cattle or horse traffic through the pasture can leave permanent damage to pasture. Heavy rainfall can make that damage worse.
“If you’re raising livestock on pastures your most important product is grass,” Higgins said. “The quality and quantity of grasses dictate how many critters you can sustain on your farm. And if grass is your most important product, soil is your most important resource.”
Among the simplest and least expensive options is to re-examine the efficiency of your farm’s design. Higgins calls it “material handling,” or just “moving stuff.”
“If you’re hauling hay or feed, how many times do you move it before it gets to the cow?” he asks livestock owners. “Two tons of hay becomes six tons if you have to move it three times.”
Extension specialists recommend taking a fresh look at where you, your animals and your equipment go on the farm. The pressure per square inch of a cow’s hoof on the grass can be greater than that of a bulldozer, so minimizing traffic saves a lot of wear and tear.
“A poor layout is a source of constant loss,” he said. “A good layout costs little or no more to produce than a poor one.”
Planning more efficiency into the farm will protect against some of the cost of restoration and repair. And simple solutions to weather events, such as penning up livestock after a soaking rain to allow the soil to percolate, can pay big dividends.
“It doesn’t have to be costly or complicated. You can achieve a lot with just the step point method, which has been around since the 1950s,” said Chris LeMaster. “Essentially walking and observing what touches your boot is a basic technique for pasture inventory and damage assessment.”
County Extension agents have research-based information available locally and more resources are online at Clemson Extension Livestock and Forages, www.clemson.edu/extension/livestock/.
Written by Tom Hallman, Clemson University Public Service and Agriculture.