Karl's Comments - Beginning Rotational Grazing
We know the benefits of rotational grazing. We know what it does for the pasture productivity, soil health and forage quality. Now, we need to start! So, I asked Karl “What is your advice for beginning rotational grazing?”
The day the decision to begin rotational grazing is made go out and document what is there. Get counts and photos of plant stands and various species. Dig around and get an idea of your soil structure across pastures. (This will be important in five years because you won’t remember what it was like when you first started.) There are multiple ways to accomplish rotational grazing, but not a one size fits all method. Determine what will be best for you, and start there. The physical items you need are polywire, a reel, and some step-in posts (plus some grass and livestock, of course). Bonus: Do not spend a lot on interior fencing and infrastructure. With polywire and step-in posts you can be creative.
The next step is figuring out what forage you have and how much you need:
1. Pasture sticks can be used to measure pasture height and a different side of the stick gives us a table that can be used to estimate the density of various pastures by counting visible dots.
For the 4 dots visible in this mixed pasture, the table gives a range of 150-250 lbs DM lbs per inch, so we will use 200#/Inch to estimate. We know they will graze the 10-inch grass to a 4-inch stubble with 6 inches eaten. (Stubble height can change and vary, and sometimes getting too specific can overcomplicate things.)
We can calculate our forage amount using those measurements:
(200# Density/Inch x 6 Inches) = 1200# DM/Acre
2. Now, take a look at your livestock and get rough idea of dry matter intake per day. An example is a 1000# cow eating 3% of her body weight in dry matter forage (30#/day). Calculate the need for your entire herd:
50 Cows x 30#/Day = 1500# DM Need/Day
3. How many acres will give them 1500# of forage? Use the Dry Matter/Acre estimate and the DM Need/Day that we found:
1500# DM need/day / 1200# dm per acre = 1.25 acres needed/day
Knowing this, Karl recommends giving them enough for 2 days, so 2.5 acres (accurate acre measurement is important). The reason for two days when starting is it gives you wiggle room. If you underestimated, it won’t be grazed to the dirt before the next time you check on them. If there is more that 2 days’ worth, it can be adjusted to leave them on that longer or tighten that paddock. Eventually you will get an eye for what your cattle will eat and how long it will take them. Some may say that overgrazing at the beginning by accident will wreck pastures forever, but it won’t. If that does happen, it’s okay. It’s just the beginning and you will perfect it over time.
With your forage estimates made, walk all your pastures and see how much you have to get a big picture idea of your grazing plan. Parts of the pasture will all be at different stages, so some estimating will be needed. There are many opinions on the timing of when cattle should be moved, but this can be flexible. Generally, as long as they are not left for longer that 4-5 days, the pasture will not be damaged. With cow calf pairs, Karl has his cattle in the same paddock for 2-3 days. If his schedule allows, he will move more often, but the system has to work with your lifestyle to an extent.
Dairy and grass finished beef are a different story. Both need the best forage quality to be highly productive, so they would need moved as often as possible. Karl has finished cattle on grass and would move them 1-2 times per day. The movement encourages higher forage intake and the lack of fluctuations in forage quality throughout the time they are in paddocks will improve performance.
Your final task is determining a water source. One central location can require creativity in how they get there. You want to avoid creating a permanent lane where the cattle will form trails and dead areas in the pasture. Karl has been there done that and those areas can be difficult to heal. A hydrant at a high point of the operation can serve well as a water source with the addition of a garden hose or water pipe to start. The initial expense of that option will be made up for in being able to make the paddocks wherever you want and having that improved management.
The main point of beginning rotational grazing is improving soil health, plant health and animal performance. Get basic skills in place then look at what additional improvements you can make in seed options, genetics, and infrastructure.