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High-quality pastures share common characteristics

By Janet Kubat Willette

jkubat@agrinews.com

PRESTON, Minn. — Forty cows and their calves grazed in the pasture by Camp Creek while people gathered up the hill talked about the characteristics of high-quality pastures.

Bob Joachim, a soil conservation technician with the Fillmore County Natural Resources Conservation Service, squatted down and took out his pencil and pasture condition score sheet. He went through the score sheet aloud, asking for attendee participation.

The score sheet ranks pastures on such things as percent desirable plants, plant diversity, amount of residue, plant vigor and percent legumes. He gave the pasture a 43.5 out of a possible 50 points. Most pastures he evaluates come in somewhere from 25 to 50, but the range is zero to 50.

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The score sheet is a good way to show trends in the pasture from year to year, he said, while work done by grazing land management specialist Jeff Duchene can be used to manage during the growing season.

Duchene, whose work in the Root River Watershed is funded by Clean Water Legacy money, demonstrated clipping a square foot of a pasture.

He selected an area, measured it with a pasture ruler and then a rising plate meter. Next, he fit a wooden frame that measures a square foot into the thick pasture grass and took out shears — stolen from his mother, he said — and began cutting the orchard grass, smooth bromegrass and the Kentucky bluegrass in the pasture on a hillside outside Preston.

He clips pastures monthly, recording the data, in an effort to show the change in growth that occurs. He balls up the clippings, stuffs them in a labeled paper grocery sack and lets them dry, putting the clippings in a microwave to aid the drying process. The final step is to weigh the clippings to determine yield or pasture production.

Clipping pastures is the most accurate way to determine yield, but it’s also the most time consuming, Duchene said. He clips 15 times in each pasture.

A quicker way to determine yield would be to use a pasture ruler and compare that number to a book value or past clipping studies. A rising plate meter could also be used. Duchene does 30 samples per field when using a pasture ruler or rising plate meter. It’s important to be consistent in the position used to read the ruler.

Measuring pasture production is relatively new, said John Zinn, a NRCS grazing specialist, but it can help graziers make better management decisions. For example, if a grazier does some monitoring and finds only 12 days worth of grazing available, it’s time to make some feeding decisions before the feed supply is exhausted. Not all pastures are created equal, he said.

Monitoring isn’t an exact science, Duchene said, but it is a tool that can often be overlooked.

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He is available to help producers in the Root River Watershed start a pasture monitoring system. He can also help producers set up a rotational grazing system or answer questions about grazing.

Economic pressures, including the high cost of fossil fuels, are pushing farmers to consider grazing, Zinn said.

"I often think conservation and economics can interlink pretty nicely," he said.

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