We have talked so much this year about hay, it is easy to forget that grazing makes up 75% or more of the feed that goes into our livestock. The management gurus will tell you that to get more rocks in a box, you put the big rocks in first. I will argue that rotational grazing is the biggest rock of all.
First let’s define rotational grazing. Rotational grazing is a system of allocating pasture such that livestock are only given access to limited areas and the remainder is allowed to rest. Forage agronomists like me can get a little nerdy about rotational grazing. Heck, we even come up with a half dozen different names for it, like leader-follower, creep grazing, mob grazing, flash grazing. You get the picture.
The message I want to leave with you in this article is that rotational grazing does not have to be complicated. Take a horse farm that just reseeded a critical pasture field this spring with novel tall fescue and orchardgrass. Spring seedings of our cool season grasses need to be carefully managed during the first growing season because the seedlings are not fully established. In this case, they had good enough growth and moderate temperatures that grazing the field during this first season was doable. And the farm really needed the extra pasture acres.
The problem was that there were no subdivisions in the pasture. And only one water source. Letting horses have access to the full pasture would produce some very overgrazed areas and waste of a lot of forage. The solution? You got it – Subdivide the field and do some simple rotation.
The farm had never used temporary electrified fencing before, so this was a big leap. They used plastic tread-in posts and ½ inch wide poly-tape to divide the field into two parts. And they added one more stock tank so each section had water.
The good thing about rotational grazing is that small steps can have big rewards. In this case, the farm was able to protect their investment in new grass while utilizing these new pastures. They watched the horses closely so that when they began to graze below four or five inches they moved them to the other half. These were slow rotations, 10 days or more per subdivision. But it allowed them to utilize the pasture and rest half of it at the same time.
The horses acclimated to the fence easily even though they had never been exposed before. After one bad experience with touching the fence, they never bothered it again. The horses did not go through the fence even during some of the stormy weather of late July.
Let me remind you of the other benefits of rotational grazing.
1. More grass. By leaving four inches or more and resting the pasture, the grass stays in the rapid growth phase. Grazing pastures can actually be measured to produce more yield than those that are never grazed.
2. Less forage is wasted. When forage is grown but not grazed, as in continuously stocked pastures, significant forage is lost due to leaves dying before being harvested. Rotational will generally keep the grass in a vegetative and actively growing stage and will lessen losses due to shading and senescence.
3. Forage quality is maintained. When grasses are kept in an actively growing stage, the grazable forage tends to be mainly new, green leaves, which are very high in quality. Brown, dead leaves are provide little nutrition, especially to growing, lactating or active livestock like horses in training.
4. High quality species remain in the stand. Grazing livestock will seek out their preferred forages. Left unchecked, they repeatedly graze these which ultimately will eliminate them from the pasture. Rotation keeps species like novel tall fescues, orchardgrass and other highly palatable species in stands longer.
5. Nutrient cycling. Grazing animals remove little nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium from a pasture. Ten percent or less, in fact. In large pastures, grazing animals consume the forage and its nutrients and then will deposit their manure and urine close to shade or water. Animals on subdivided pastures will deposit more of their manure and urine out in the pasture, keeping those nutrients cycling and growing forage.
I have no doubt that this list could be expanded to 20 or more reasons to rotationally graze. For sure, rotational grazing is a powerful tool that can pay big dividends. But you don’t have to have 50 subdivisions to start cashing in.