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Collect More Solar Energy

Collect More Solar Energy

By John W. Henry, Rangeland Management Specialist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Manhattan, Kansas

Alternative energy is getting a lot of press lately with the high cost and diminishing supplies of oil. Solar energy, on the other hand, is free and won’t be diminishing for several billion years. Energy from the sun is collected by green plants which turns this free energy into a food source for cattle. Cattle convert this energy into beef, a product consumable by people, thereby providing income to the rancher. The energy chain of converting sunshine to plants to cattle to beef to dollars is an amazing process that allows people to consume a nutritious food product from rangeland, and it is totally sustainable when properly managed.

Solar energy is the origin of all agricultural production. It is free and reliable. The most important part of the sunshine to dollar chain is the “sunshine to plant” link, and it is something that we can easily manage. Sunshine that falls on bare ground is wasted energy whereas sunshine that falls on a green leaf is used to create more green leaves that collect more sunshine and so on, to the point where there are several layers of leaves and the ground is totally shaded with little light getting through. We manage green leaves by controlling grazing heights of the desirable plants.

Desirable plants are plants that cattle like to eat and provide the nutrition necessary to maintain and grow healthy cattle. These include grasses such as big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, and sideoats grama. Many forbs (weeds) are desirable as well such as roundhead lespedeza, western ragweed, Illinois bundleflower, and many more. If undesirable plants are getting all the sunshine, we will end up with a lot of undesirable plants such as tall dropseed, cheatgrass, dogwood, and cedar trees.

The green leaves of desirable plants are tasty and readily consumed by cattle. What is even better is the regrowth that occurs after a plant has been grazed. So how do we maintain enough solar collecting leaves on these plants? First, we must not allow all the leaves to be removed from the plants. Plants without leaves take a long time to recover because they cannot collect solar energy. We have found that if we graze off 50 percent or less of the leaf area, plants will continue to grow and recover quickly. The more leaf area that remains on plants, the quicker they will recover and the more production will be seen through the growing season. Second, we must provide the plants ample time to rest and re-grow without being grazed over and over. New growth on a grass plant is very tender and nutritious. Cattle will continue coming back to these plants until the plants are suppressed or even killed.

How to accomplish these two objectives—rotational grazing system or intensive grazing system.

One way is to use a rotational grazing system by removing the cattle from a pasture or portion of a pasture to allow for regrowth and recovery. A good start is to cross fence a pasture and move cattle back and forth allowing the plants on each side to rest about 28 to 40 days. Move faster in the spring when the grass is growing faster, then move slower as the growth slows down. Cross fences need not be expensive. Most grazing systems are done with a single-wire electric fence. More pastures or paddocks can be created if water is available. Highest production is usually achieved with 9 to12 paddocks with moves occurring every few days.

Another way is to use an intensive, early stocking system. Cattle are stocked from May 1 to July 15 at a higher stocking rate. Next, the plants are rested the last half of the growing season and allowed to regrow and recover at a time of year when reproduction and root growth is taking place.

Proper stocking rates are one of the biggest factors in making grazing systems work for you. If you would like assistance on developing grazing systems or stocking, a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Rangeland Management Specialist is available to help you get started. Please contact your local NRCS office or conservation district office located at your local county U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at offices.usda.gov). More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at www.ks.nrcs.usda.gov. Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.