Rotational Grazing for the Working Man… and Woman

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If I could give a farmer any piece of advice to help him or her with their livestock enterprise, it would be to rotationally graze.  Rotational grazing has so many benefits, including decreasing parasite loads, increasing legumes, increasing plant tonnage, decreasing weeds, and increasing animal growth rates.  The down sides are few and far between, but there are multitudes of ways to graze rotationally, and some of them are better for you than others.

If you work a 40+ hour a week job (like I do), you don’t have as much time on the farm as a full-time farmer does (obviously). I’ve read articles where some dairy farmers strip graze fields and move cows (and the front and back fence) twice a day.  That’s taking grazing efficiency to the max, but as more and more labor and time is required to move cattle, the trade off that better grazing gives you starts dropping off until it’s a losing battle for everyone who spends their week in a Dilbert cubicle.

For those of us with interests outside the farm, but still want to reap the rewards that rotational grazing gives, once-a-week paddock shifts are the ticket.  Split your large field into at least three quadrants (four is really better).  If you can’t keep shade/shelter and water in each paddock, make sure livestock always have access back to a main section of the farm where barns and water troughs are held.  By splitting your field into thirds, you get two weeks of rest for every week your livestock graze the paddock.  By splitting into fourths, you only graze once per month and you have three times as much recovery time as grazing time.  Most grasses need a minimum of three weeks rest time to grow back to their pre-eaten stage, so four paddocks win out over three in my opinion.  If you decide later on that you want to increase the number of paddocks you’re running cattle or other livestock on, you can split each existing paddock, creating eight out of four with little effort. 

Now most of you may be thinking grazing’s over for the year, and it is for most of us, but now is the time to think about putting in the extra fence.  The ground is softer than in summer and the grass is shorter (making it easier to walk).  Even if you’re far enough north that it’s frozen, you can still do this before grasses take off in spring.  You may even find that you can keep your cows on each paddock longer than one week.  Since cows tromp far more vegetation than they eat, you’re keeping hoof traffic off of all the other growing grasses.  They’ll grow faster and better and you may have even more hay in the spring, and more grasses to stockpile in fall.  Stockpiled forages are just grasses that have been left in the field (instead of cut, raked, and baled like hay) through frost.  This time next year, you may be grazing grass instead of feeding hay.