Get back to the basics of grazing

If you have livestock that graze pastures or you are looking to start grazing livestock, you may have read this column over the past several years and asked yourself, “How can I improve my pasture management?”

With spring now here, I thought this would be a good time to review the five basic principles of Management intensive Grazing (MiG) that is the foundation for successful grazing.

Psychological barriers

When I was a child, it was my Great Uncle Ermil who inspired my love for the farm. There were Dorset sheep and Jersey cows that grazed the farm. The sheep grazed the hillsides and poor ground and the dairy cows grazed the bottoms the better ridge tops. There were several fields for both species, and they were rotated to the next field when needed.

The development of the electric fence revolutionized grazing in that a single strand of fence can be used and moved to wherever it is needed and improve our ability to control how much animals can graze. Prior to that, we had permanent fences and we could only control how many animals we put in the field or how long we kept them in. Now we can also adjust the size of the field any way we need at a low cost.

No seed heads

Will mowing down your pasture in May cause you to waste pasture? I will argue that in most cases no.

When a perennial plant starts to grow in the spring, its main objective is to reproduce, and once it does, it will just sit there, overripe and of poor quality. If you remove the seed heads, it will stimulate the plant (especially grasses) to move to the vegetative stage, produce leaves and put energy into the roots for the winter.
Perennial legumes will continue to develop seed heads; perennial grasses will likely produce only leaves.

My point is if your livestock do not consume the seed heads as they develop, clipping pastures when grass sets seed heads will eliminate the poor quality, low digestible forages and encourage new vegetative growth.

Rest periods

The reason we have multiple fields (paddocks) is to allow the forages to rest and grow again. The forages are at the highest quality when they are young and tender, but if they are grazed too much when they are at that stage, the root reserves will diminish and the plant will die. If the plant gets too mature, the quality will be lower and less digestible.

Therefore we need to balance the needs of the plants with the needs of the animals — which brings me to the next principle.
Short grazing intervals. How long should we keep animals in a paddock before we move them?

Some people like dairy producers may move animals two or more times a day. Some may have just a few paddocks and may move animals once a week.

In my opinion, for most of us, the ideal duration in a paddock would be to move animals before the forages that were consumed starts to grow again.

How long is that?

I will use the analogy of how long does it take your lawn to start growing after you mow it — normally three days. For most of us, three days is ideal, but if you are not rotating animals and you can divide the field in half, you will see improvements, then maybe you can divide the paddocks again into four, and so on.

Also, the speed of the rotation will vary based on weather conditions and the season. In mid spring, the forages may be growing very fast and you will want to move animals often. In the summer, the rotation may slow down.

During dry periods, you may rotate through the paddocks and new growth may not be adequate. In that case, you may want to put the livestock in a “sacrifice area” and provide stored feed.

Grazing a paddock that does not have adequate new growth will cause a greater loss in future production then the stored feed you provide until the paddock is ready to graze.

Match the animals’ needs to the forage values. This one can be more of a challenge, but the principle is to make sure the high producing animals are receiving the highest quality forages, and animals such as dry, early gestating, good condition females get lower quality forages.

A good condition, dry, open ewe does not need high quality alfalfa, and a lactating dairy cow will not produce to her potential on mature grass.

Bottom line

Some of the benefits of MiG are the pounds of livestock produced per acre, improved pasture quality, extended grazing season, more control of the livestock, and increased stocking rates.

As you get started, one the most important issues you will face is do you bring the animals to water or do you take the water to the animals. Research and experience with other graziers will indicate that taking water to the animals will provide more balanced grazing and improved animal performance.
Spring is here. It is time to get started grazing. Hopefully, you can get started improving the grazing for your animals.

Several grazing schools are offered each year in Ohio. Morgan County will have a grazing school on April 2,4 and 6. For more information, call the Morgan County Extension office at 740-962-4854.

About the Author

Chris Penrose is an OSU Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources and 4-H Youth Development in Morgan County. More Stories by Chris Penrose

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