January 18, 2022

Build flexibility into rotational grazing system plans

‘Work smarter instead of harder’

MADISON, Wis. — There is no one correct way to set up a grazing system, but there are definitely wrong ways.

“With rotational grazing one of the major limiting factors for success is understanding how to mesh the different components together — fence, waterlines and seeding,” said Adam Abel, Wisconsin grazing lands specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“With any grazing conversation, you need to understand a proper layout and how livestock flows,” said Abel during a Grassland 2.0 digital dialogue.

When designing a grazing system, Abel said, he focuses on efficiency and how intensive the owner wants to graze, from moving the animals twice a day to giving them a new paddock to graze once a week.

“Even going from a three-day move to a one-day move, you will see the benefit of dry matter production and soil health,” he said.

Abel grew up on a rotational grazing farm.

“My dad started grazing when I was 8 years old because we had such bad stray voltage,” he said. “Our farm has evolved from a dairy to a grass-finished beef operation and my dad also raises poultry.”

A rotational grazing system can help livestock producers reduce operating costs.

“You don’t have to start the tractor for stored feed, there’s less infrastructure and it requires reduced labor,” Abel said. “If done right, you can work smarter instead of harder.”

Environmental benefits from grazing systems include water quality, soil health and reduced soil erosion.

“This is fun and it works,” Abel said. “It’s a system that’s good for your economics, the environment, your labor and the cattle.”

According to research in Pennsylvania, Abel said, with grazing systems during the summer months there was 24% less sediment loss, 22% less sediment bound phosphorus runoff, 23% less soluble phosphorus runoff, 27% lower ammonia volatilization, 14% lower net emission of greenhouse gases and a 25% small carbon footprint.

Abel encourages graziers to develop a flexible system.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see is people boxing themselves in with permanent pastures,” he said. “They build 31 one-acre paddocks and rotate the cattle every day.”

However, Abel said, that will probably work once.

“The second time through, the grass will be at a different height because of a summer slump or parts will be too mature and parts will be overgrazed,” he said.

High tensile wire is typically used to set up temporary fences in a grazing system.

“Temporary fence is part of the backbone that makes these systems work,” Abel said. “You can give them as much grass or as little as you want, and as long as your animals respect the fence and there is water, the sky is the limit.”

With a high tensile fence, animals can graze around corners and the grazing area can be extended into crop fields.

“Remember to keep the fence simple and focus on grass management, residual and trying to get as much production off the land as possible,” Abel said.

“A flexible water system that allows you to move the tank around the property is key,” he said. “Once you understand how to lay out pipelines, it’s pretty simple, it doesn’t cost a lot and it gives you flexibility for nutrient management.”

When planning a new grazing system, Abel does not typically start with trails and walkways unless it’s for a dairy herd.

“Management should be your starting point, and you can always come back to these later,” he said. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t have trails, but really think if you need them because the cost is so much.”

Residual is important for a rotational grazing system.

“It is important not only from the environmental stance, but also long term for increasing the dry matter production,” Abel said. “When you leave 5 to 7 inches of residual, you don’t lose it because the forage goes into the rapid growth phase.”

As a result, Abel explained, instead of grazing the pasture three to four times a year, the cattle graze it eight times a year.

“The cattle graze the pasture twice as much as the average hay cutting,” Abel said.

“Animals with the greatest nutritional needs must be allowed to graze quality grass,” he said. “Avoid keeping animals on a given area for more than three days. It is best to limit access to a 24-hour period.”

Raising dairy heifers on pasture can be cheaper than in a confinement facility.

“This shows it costs $2.50 per day to raise a heifer in confinement and the pasture cost is $1.50 per day or less,” Abel said. “If you have 100 heifers, you are saving $700 per week by raising them on pasture and these heifers raised on pasture produced up to 2,000 pounds more milk during the first lactation.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor