Professional Development Program






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Unit 2: Applying Ecological Principles

We use a similar starting point in this section as we did in the previous discussion of sustainable crop production. First, it is important to have an understanding of the basic requirements for animal growth and health. (Those requirements are not the subject of this course; refer to other sources for information on the biology and nutritional needs of each type—dairy cattle, beef cattle, poultry, hogs, sheep.) But the question is not just whether the basic conditions for animal growth have been met. More importantly, how can we optimize them for animal and ecosystem health. The basic premise (and the focus of this unit) is that the healthier and more robust the animal, the more it will produce and the stronger it will be in the face of disease/pest pressures and other environmental stresses.
For producers with integrated systems, as well as those whose farms and ranches are solely livestock-based, there are a number of management goals focused on creating optimum conditions for animal health. These are summarized below. In addition, producers with integrated systems growing feed, hay, forage or pasture, are also addressing the management goals and key practices for creating optimum conditions for plant health discussed in the previous section of this unit. Let’s take a few minutes to review the key management goals related to livestock production:  
Adapted from What Is Sustainable Agriculture? University of California, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

Management Planning

Including livestock increases the complexity of the farming system. Managers must address mobility of the stock, daily feeding, health concerns, breeding, seasonal feed and forage sources, and marketing. A successful ranch plan should include enterprise calendars of operations, stock flows, forage flows, labor needs, herd production records and land use plans to give the manager control and a means of monitoring progress toward goals.

Enterprise Selection

Key considerations when selecting an animal enterprise include land capabilities and constraints, feed and forage sources, topography, water resources, climate and the skill and experience of the manager. Ruminant animals, for example, can be raised on a variety of feed sources including range and pasture, cultivated forage, cover crops, shrubs, weeds, and crop residues. There is a wide range of breeds available in each of the major ruminant species, i.e., cattle, sheep and goats. Hardier breeds that, in general, have lower growth and milk production potential, are better adapted to less favorable environments with sparse or highly seasonal forage growth.

Animal Nutrition

Feed costs are the largest single variable cost in most livestock operations. Some ranchers grow their own feed, but even in those systems a portion of the feed usually has to be purchased and transported to the farm. Feed costs can be minimized by monitoring animal condition and performance and understanding seasonal variations in feed and forage quality on the farm. Determining the optimal use of farm-generated by-products is an important challenge of diversified farming.

Reproduction and Herd Health

Ranchers can improve herd performance by using good genetic stock. In addition, health problems and feed costs can be reduced by adapting the reproduction season to fit the climate and sources of feed and forage. Animal health greatly influences reproductive success and weight gains, two key aspects of successful livestock production. Unhealthy stock waste feed and require additional labor. A herd health program is critical to sustainable livestock production.

Grazing Management

Proper grazing management addresses three key factors. First, the number of stock per unit area (stocking rate) must be appropriate for the landscape and the forage resources. Second, the long-term carrying capacity of the land and the stocking rate must take into account the possibility of short- and long-term droughts. Finally, the manager must achieve sufficient control to reduce overuse in some areas while other areas go unused. Prolonged concentration of stock that results in permanent loss of vegetative cover on uplands or in riparian zones should be avoided. Controlled grazing (or management intensive grazing) is the key practice for addressing these factors.

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