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Optimizing the Potential of Pasture through Rotational Grazing

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It is no secret that rotational grazing is far more beneficial to grass quality and pasture yields than the conventional method of continuous grazing. Healthier pastures, resulting from the benefits of rotational grazing, also bring healthier gains to the cattle who graze them. 

"Ideally, through rotational grazing, we are developing strong, healthy plants as the rest and recovery provided by rotational grazing brings the benefit of better growth, stronger grass plants, weed suppression, drought tolerance and overall higher quality feed for the cattle grazing them. In fact, we see 25 to 40 per cent more production per acre or paddock from rotational grazing pastures, especially on those who rotate every one to two days," says Forage and Grazing Specialist, Jack Kyle, with Gallagher US and Canada.


Tips & Insights for Rotational Grazing

If rotational grazing is in your pasture plans for the first time this grazing season, or if you have been implementing this grazing strategy for years, here are some tips and insights from grazing specialist, Jack Kyle, to help ensure that you make the most of every acre:

Proper Timing for Spring Pastures

"As a rule, pastures should not be grazed until the two- to three-leaf stage, or when the plants are at least six to 8 inches tall," says Kyle. "Grazing a pasture too early will result in the vegetation being removed before the plants have had a chance to start replenishing root reserves. Also, if you have a high density of legumes in the pasture, don't graze it until the plants are eight to 12 inches tall. For native range, timing is really important as grazing native range before the third-leaf stage can result in the loss of over 60 per cent of the potential forage yield."

"Moisture conditions also play a key factor in timing pasture turnout," cautions Kyle. "When it comes to turning out your cattle, don't let them punch the pasture up. Especially with the high moisture levels from snow melt this spring. If cattle sink two or three inches, just wait for drier conditions before turning cattle onto pasture. I know it will be hard to do as we are anxious to get to pasture this year more than most, but try not to be impatient."

"If the pasture is too wet, and there is no alternative, producers have two choices: either move very frequently once over the pasture and be done. Or if you have stored feed, then feed in a sacrificed area until the pasture is dry enough for turn out. Otherwise, those holes and impact from cattle going in too early on wet ground won't go away and the effects of damage will be long-term."

Calculating Grass Consumption

"A cow needs 2.5 per cent of her body weight in dry matter intake."

"The most ideal pasture will have about 300 lbs. of dry matter per inch of height. For pastures in poorer condition, where one might see dead residue at the bottom, or patches of bare ground, they can vary from 50 lbs. to 300 lbs. of dry matter per acre per inch or lower," says Kyle.

"When pasture weights go up, we also see cattle gain weight faster. That is why it is important to truly understand the amount of forage or dry matter available in your pasture. I recommend that producers go harvest a square metre or square foot of their pasture with scissors and weigh it on a set of kitchen scales. This will provide an accurate idea as to how much is really out there in the pasture. It doesn't take long to do it and after a while your estimation comes easier and is more accurate." Fresh green forages will be approximately 20 per cent dry matter.

Rotation

"Once on the pasture, cattle should be moved based on the growth rate of the pasture and the height of the forage. Cattle should be exposed to fresh grass every day. Forages grow more rapidly in the spring, so cattle will need to be rotated more often, four days or less, when the cattle are grazing to a higher height of around 6 to eight inches. We want the cattle to graze just enough to avoid heading and maturity of the forage. If we go more than five days, then the plants are starting to regrow and the cattle will be causing damage to the plant by grazing off that new growth."

"With good growing conditions, forage plants need at least one month of rest to regrow properly and to replenish their nutrient levels," says Kyle. "Be attentive to how many inches of plant residue are left after grazing; the more leaf area remaining, the more photosynthetic material available to replenish root nutrient reserves.

As grass growth rate declines through the summer, the frequency of rotation can also be decreased."

Don't Stay Too Long

"The premise behind rotational grazing is one that best mimics the natural and nomadic nature of grazing animals, grazing in high density for short periods and moving along," says Kyle. "If we can avoid the cow from selective grazing, that is what we are really trying to do. We want her to eat everything."

"I am a strong advocate of one-day rotational grazing strategies. Research has shown us that frequent moves are more advantageous for both forage production and animal performance."

"Ideally, the animal takes one bite from the grass plant and doesn't come back for a second, then the cow is really managing the grass for us. So if we don't stay too long, weed management can also be part of the benefit of a grazing rotational system and moving frequently best supports that. Most weeds are palatable in early vegetation state; it's when they start to mature when they become coarse and woody that they are left behind. So not only for grass health but for weed suppression too, get in, graze it and get out."

Fencing

"Of course containment reliability is extremely important when it comes to successful rotational grazing practices," says Kyle. "You want to have a containment system that you feel confident will keep your cattle where they are supposed to be – one that lets you sleep at night. I recommend when using temporary fence, to use poly reels or turbo wire type reels with step-in posts. Section your paddock areas and work with whatever your design lets you work with, then split pasture into halves or quarters for one, two or three day moves."

"Your fencing strategy should also take cattle movement into consideration. Try to implement even distribution or use multiple water sources on a pasture as cattle tend to stay fairly close to the water source. So if you can, use water, as well as salt and mineral placement in different areas of the field to support cattle movement. You want to encourage travel across the pasture as much as you can, especially on big expanses of grassland."

"The implementation of a well-managed, rotational pasture program can be the most economical way to provide forage to cattle as well as optimize their gain potential. It brings great returns and can be easy to implement if you manage your grass like you don't have a tractor and let the cow do all the work for you," says Kyle. 

With over 30 years of expertise in soil, crop and pasture with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Jack Kyle is currently a Forage and Grazing Specialist for Gallagher US and Canada, as well as an independent consultant.

For over 20 years, UFA has supported the cattle industry by delivering the tools, products, services and support for successful business. To learn more about our products, please visit your local UFA or connect with one of our Livestock Specialists by calling 1-877-258-4500, Option 1 or contact one of our livestock representatives.