Pasture Management: Rotational Grazing

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“Beef producers are grass farmers first and cattle farmers second”. You may have heard this saying before. I believe this is one of the most accurate and meaningful statements you will hear as a beef producer. I believe this simply because forage production is one of if not the most important parts in determining a cow herds profitability. We all know, to be a good grass farmer we need to manage soil fertility and weed populations in our pastures. However, one component of beginning a good grass farmer that gets overlooked far too often is how we manage how our cattle graze our grass. 

Implementing a carefully planned grazing system in combination with optimal soil fertility and weed management, allows for greater profitability by increasing forage production and extending the grazing season. Feeding hay is one of the most expensive things we can do as beef producers. When you figure in labor, equipment and feeding cost plus waste associated with storage and feeding, the real cost of hay is pretty high. Thus, maximizing the days cattle are grazing high quality forages can significantly help the bottom line of any beef operation. 

One way to increase the grazing season is utilizing a rotational grazing system. Continuously grazed pastures produce low yields because the forages are not permitted a rest period. Rotational grazing is a system in which a larger pasture is divided into smaller pastures (called paddocks). Only one paddock is grazed at any given time while the remainder of the pasture rests. This rest period improves root systems and forage vigor resulting in increased production. Rotational grazing has proven to increase gain per acre compared to conventional grazing. In addition to this, rotational grazing helps improve manure distribution. The improved manure distribution achieved with rotational grazing, reduces fertilizer needs, and improves yields in the following grazing season. Rotational grazing also allows the producer to stockpile forages, which can drastically reduce the need to feed hay in the winter. On average, the cost of stockpiling forages is less than half of harvesting hay. Furthermore, the nutritional quality of grazed forage is typically much better than hay available to most farms, reducing the need for costly supplementation with energy and protein supplements.

In an ideal rotational grazing system, it is necessary to allow a paddock full rest by utilizing start and stop points. For tall fescue and other cool season grasses, start grazing when the forage is 6-8 inches tall and stop grazing (rotate to another paddock) when the forage reaches 3-4 inches tall. Recovery time will vary depending on the stocking rate and season. 

If you have any questions about rotational grazing or any other production topics you can reach me at tom_devine@ncsu.edu or 828-652-8104.