Plan ahead for pasture management - Northern

23 October 2015

Spring can be agonising time for northern producers as feed reserves run low, but there are strategies which can be implemented now to protect pastures and capitalise on any season-breaking rain.

Current pasture feed availability across northern Australia ranges from none through to average for this time of year.

Queensland grazing management extension specialist Jill Alexander, of Applied Ag, said it is a ‘waiting game’ for producers, who would typically expect to receive new pasture growth sometime between now and mid-summer. 

However, in the face of patchy early rain in some regions, long periods of dry in others and over-arching El Nino climatic conditions, producers can implement several strategies now to protect pastures over the next few months.

"The first is to protect existing pastures. If you have residual pasture, preserve as much as you can to maximise water infiltration into the soil when it does rain," Jill said.

“The more organic matter (preferably attached) on the soil, the more water that will end up in the soil profile and the quicker the growth response of the plants when it does rain.”

When it does rain, Jill recommended delaying grazing to give pasture time to properly establish and ensure there is follow up rain to sustain growth. ‘False starts’ in pasture can be common at this time of year.

Northern pastures are at their most vulnerable to grazing pressure when the plant starts to reshoot after the dry season. They depend on root stocks for nutrients and energy, and plants that are already stressed from lack of rest over previous seasons (due to either not reducing stock numbers or uncontrolled macropod grazing pressure) are highly susceptible to damage or death if over grazed.

“There is a lag period between the green date (when you would typically get enough rain to initiate pasture growth) and when there is a sufficient quantity of new feed available so that you can start restocking and increasing grazing pressure in paddocks without doing damage to pasture plants,” Jill said.

Depending on weather conditions, this lag period for pastures in good condition is around four to six weeks. While the rule of thumb is to delay grazing until pastures have reached phase two of growth, pastures  in poor condition  should be rested until at least the majority of the pasture has set and dropped seed (phase three of growth).  

Other risk management grazing strategies in an El Nino year include:

  • Reassess your stocking rate/feed budget. El Nino means the start of the wet season is typically delayed by up to a month so pastures needs to last longer.
  • Delay establishing new pastures. Without favourable weather conditions, pasture establishment is an expensive and often fruitless exercise in dry years.  Hold off until late summer when heatwave conditions start to recede and rainfall potential improves.
  • Delay burning until seasonal conditions improve. This is because not only does there tend to be a limited amount of fuel, but also there is also a reduced chance of follow-up rain and a low probability of quick pasture regrowth.  Only burn if you have full profile of soil moisture or after a significant fall of rain.

Tools

Resources to guide tactical decisions around grazing management include:

Stocktake Plus: This app was developed as a decision support tool for FutureBeef and MLA, for best management practices such as monitoring grazing land condition and short-term forage budgeting.

MLA's EDGEnetwork: Practical learning opportunities to help producers gain knowledge and develop skills necessary to improve their livestock enterprises, including nutrition and grazing land management.

Bureau of Meteorology: Climatic outlooks are useful for long-term planning, while seasonal forecasts can be used to assess and adjust stocking capacity.

More information: Jill Alexander E: jillalexander@bigpond.com

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