When it comes to managing our pasture’s forages, it’s wise to think of ourselves as forage producers, not just livestock producers. Our livestock are simply our forage “customers” or “consumers” of the product we produce. The grazing management system on your farm should focus on both the animals and the plants.
First, let’s better understand the purpose and benefits of grazing management systems. A grazing management system’s goal is to produce high-quality forage to feed livestock for as much of the year as possible. Good management is also key to producing healthy productive pastures, which in turn, produce healthy productive animals.
The simultaneous intertwining management of livestock and plants in your pasture is unique and can be challenging. However, properly managed, it can produce many benefits, such as improved forage quality and yield, decreased feeding of hay and silage, improved distribution of manure, decreased weed infestations, decreased soil compaction and erosion and an increased stocking rate on the same acreage, just to name a few.
There are several different grazing management system options.
Grazing is considered continuous when livestock are left to graze one area for a long period of time. The advantage for this type of grazing is low start-up costs and less management, which translates to less time.
However, there are way more disadvantages than advantages, which include lower forage quality and yields, lower stocking rates (supports fewer animals), uneven pasture use, imbalanced manure distribution, weed problems, requires more alternative feed, long-term costs are higher, soil composition degrades and water quality decline over time.
Simple rotational grazing
A system with more than one pasture qualifies as rotational grazing. A simple system has only a few pastures that livestock are rotated through to give pasture plants some rest after defoliation.
Advantages of simple rotational grazing include higher forage quality and yields, time for pasture to regrow, a longer growing season (less alternative feed) and better distribution of manure.
The disadvantages are that forage production is not as high as in intensive rotational grazing system, animals more than likely will require some alternative feed, fence and water will be higher and soil composition and water quality decline over time, though not as quickly as in a continuous grazing system.
Intensive rotational grazing
Intensive grazing is when livestock graze on small areas of pasture, or paddocks, for very short periods, rotating frequently from one to another to maximize forage regrowth.
There are many advantages for both the plants and animals in this type of grazing system, which include maximum forage production and yield, a high stocking rate (more animals), even distribution of manure, weed and brush control, little additional feed and soil composition and water quality increase over time.
The disadvantages are these systems require careful monitoring of the forage inventory, initial costs are higher and can get quite expensive and it requires more intensive management.
While there are many benefits to intensive rotational grazing, there are also many barriers to implementing this style of system. A few years back, I surveyed West Virginia beef producers to gain a better understanding of the current grazing systems in the state. One question on the survey addressed barriers to rotational grazing as perceived by the producers.
The top four barriers were providing water to livestock, cost of fencing, increase in labor and increase in time.
While these are barriers, they can be overcome. For example, the Natural Resource Conservation Service offers federal grant money and services used to establish paddocks and watering systems to those who qualify. Once fencing and watering systems are established, then time and labor are reduced.
This grazing system is often used when grazing stockpiled forages and annual forages. This method involves using a movable electric fence to allocate enough forage for a short time, usually enough for daily rations. The advantage of this method is high forage utilization and is especially valuable for minimizing waste when grazing stockpiled tall fescue during late autumn and winter. The disadvantage is when the pasture being strip grazed contains low-quality forages, then daily animal gains may suffer due to the reduced selectivity.
Creep grazing. This type of grazing system allows young animals to have access to a special pasture of higher quality through a fence opening or creep gate, while the mother is maintained on lower-quality pasture. The advantage of this system, particularly to beef cattle, is that calf gains increase and cow condition is often improved.
A disadvantage of creep grazing is it will not be beneficial if calves are overwintered or backgrounded on low energy diets before going to summer grass as yearlings. As forage producers and managers, you need to identify a system, or combination, that works well.
The goal is to produce high-quality forage to feed livestock for as much of the year as possible. Proper management is the key to producing healthy productive pastures, which in turn, produce healthy productive animals — not to mention a well-managed pasture can improve the environment and your bottom line.
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