Rangeland Soils & Healthy Plants

I am sure you are all aware that the soil is the foundation for all plant life on Wyoming rangelands.  But did you know that the health of those plant subsequently affects the health of the soil?  It is one giant circle—the circle of life.

In the fall rangeland grasses begin to go dormant. Growth that was not consumed by grazing herbivores falls to the soil surface and begins the decomposition process.  Plant litter, manure, and carcasses decay and nutrients from these items are incorporated into the soil.  Healthy soils are characterized by organic matter and nutrient availability.    Healthy plants create litter, which create organic matter and nutrients, which increase soil health.  Healthy soils support healthy plants, which support healthy soils.

Dried seed heads like this Foxtail Millet fall to the ground and are incorporated into  the soil, increasing organic matter and health.

Dried seed heads like this Foxtail Millet fall to the ground and are incorporated into the soil, increasing organic matter and health.


I am also sure that you know that plants need four things to grow, 1) sunlight, 2) carbon dioxide, 3) water, and 4) nutrients.  Sunlight and carbon dioxide are obtained by absorption by the leaves from the air, and water and nutrients are obtained by absorption by the roots from the soil.  Plants need robust root systems in order to fully take advantage of nutrient and water reserves in the soil.  In-order to grow robust root systems there needs to be adequate green leaf material above ground for the plant to generate energy through photosynthesis.  This energy then allows the plants to develop new roots, shoots, leaves, flowers, and seeds.  Think about when you plant a new tree in your yard… The first few years there is very little if any above ground growth.  This is because that tree is establishing the root system needed for survival.  Most of the energy that is created by photosynthesis is going into growing roots, not shoots or leaves.  One the root system is big enough to take up enough water and nutrients to support both below and above ground growth, that tree begins to put out more branches, get taller, and bushier.  The same is true for rangeland grasses.

Robust root systems are required for healthy plant growth and rangeland sustainability.

Robust root systems are required for healthy plant growth and rangeland sustainability.


What if we add properly timed grazing into the circle?  When green plant material is removed, the amount of photosynthesis it can perform is greatly reduced, which reduces the amount of energy produced.  Healthy plants are able to combat this by pulling energy stored in the roots to develop new shoots and leaves.  This new plant material creates more energy and stores it back into the system through increased root growth.   This root growth allows plant to adequately withstand drought, grazing, and fire, as well take up the nutrients needed for continued growth.  Grazing also has secondary effects.  Activities such as hoof action and manure deposition can help increase soil health.  Hoof action incorporates nutrients from decaying plant and animal material into the soil.  By removing manure deposition and hoof action the potential for increased soil health decreases.  This decrease in soil health can cause a subsequent decrease in plant health over time.

Properly managed grazing by both wildlife and domestic livestock positively affect rangeland soil health.

Properly managed grazing by both wildlife and domestic livestock positively affect rangeland soil health.


Soil health and plant health are intertwined.  When soils are in poor health, plants are in poor health and vice-versa.  By properly managing livestock grazing both soils and plants have the potential to lead very healthy lives.


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Weaning–A Stressful Time for All

A few years ago I was visiting with an individual who had little knowledge of the livestock industry.  We were visiting about weaning calves.  She asked me, “Isn’t that painful?”  My gut reply was, “no, of course not.” I then took a step back to think a minute.  She used the word “painful” because she was thinking as a mother.  I, not being a mother and having grown up around cattle and weaning, would have used the word “stressful”.  Those of us who are involved in the livestock industry don’t think of weaning as painful for the cattle.  Of course it causes the animals stress, but does it cause them actual pain?  It is an interesting question to ponder.


As grasses turn brown and fall nears, ranchers begin to think about weaning their spring born calves.


September marks the beginning of fall to many folks in the Western United States.    Labor day has passed, schools have resumed, nights are cooler, and leaves are beginning to change colors.  Weaning time for spring-born calves is just around the corner.  Its a good time to begin thinking of how to make this time as stress-free as possible, while keeping in line with production and profitability goals.  Weaning strategies can affect both cow and calf performance and therefore can affect profitability.  Choosing a weaning strategy that works within your whole ranch management plan and meets your goals is key.


Weaned calves share a secret…


Spring-born calves are typically weaned in the fall once the calves reach 5-8 months of age.  However, calves can be weaned as soon as their rumens become fully functional.  This usually occurs around 1-3 months of age, but can develop sooner if grains and/or forages are deliberately fed to the animals.   Other factors that affect time of weaning include loss of cow, available forage resources, cow body condition, time of intended sale, and other ranch activities.  

Being prepared for weaning time is critical in managing the calf’s stress levels.  Immune function and response can be lower in time of stress and thus it is a good idea to vaccinate 3-4 weeks prior to weaning.  This lessens stress levels and improves immune response to the vaccines.  Branding, castrating, and dehorning should occur well in advance of weaning.  Introducing calves to their post weaning diet prior to separation from the cow can be beneficial in ensuring proper rumen function.  By feeding both the cow and the calf the post weaning diet 2 weeks prior to weaning, the cow is able to teach the calf how and what to eat.  Typically a good quality forage will suffice depending on target performance.


Providing animals with the proper nutrition will ease the stress of weaning.


Weaning can be achieved by completely removing the cows from the calves or by what is known as fence-line weaning.  Fence-line weaning is a low-stress technique that has gained popularity in the last decade or so.  Total separation can be accomplished with good success if pre- and post-weaning management address stress, health, and nutrition.  Leaving the calves in familiar surroundings while removing the cows is a good practice.  While stress is lower in fence-line weaning, it is normal for cows and calves to bawl for several days.  Studies have shown that calves will bawl less and gain more weight during the weaning process when fence-line weaning is used when compared to traditional total separation weaning.


Is fence-line weaning an option for your operation?


Typically calves are put through a pre-conditioning phase before being shipped to their  post-weaning destination.  The length of this phase varies but typically is around 45 days.  Weaned calves should at least be rested, fed, and watered before shipping.  Providing buyers with details of your preconditioning program can be beneficial when negotiating prices.  Even if you sell your calves on the regular sale date at the closest livestock sale barn, it is still a good idea to market your animals to the best of your ability.

Do cows feel pain when you remove their calf?  If the noise they make was any indicator, I might have to say yes.  We do know that weaning can be a stressful time for the cow, the calf, and even the manager, but by following good weaning practices and by implementing a good weaning plan, that stress can be minimized.  Wishing you luck this weaning season!  May your calves be heavy and may your cows be calm.



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