Rotational grazing, stockpiling can cut down on fertilizer needs

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beef cattle on pasture

Everybody is talking about the price of fertilizer and dreading how much they will be paying in the spring. With prices like these, it is time to look at your pastures and figure out how to get more production out of them so you do not have to make as much hay. 

If your livestock stay in one pasture year-round, there are a couple of fairly inexpensive things you can do to get more grass to grow. 

Rotational grazing

The first thing is dividing your pasture. There are some die-hard grazers that move cattle every day, or multiple times a day. That is not feasible for most people, and I don’t recommend setting that as your goal when you are first starting out. 

If you have never rotationally grazed livestock, I would start with dividing the pasture in two. I would use polywire and step in posts. Do not build a permanent fence when you are just starting out. Temporary fence allows you to be flexible and change things up when necessary. 

The biggest issue a lot of times is water. If the field has one water source, the flexibility of the polywire allows you to utilize the water for both halves. 

When to rotate

When rotating between two pastures, a 10-14 day rotation would be enough to notice a difference in pasture productivity. You don’t want to graze until the grass is peeled. You want to leave some leaf cover to continue to absorb the sunlight to get the energy to grow. 

Also, having proper cover on the soil maintains a lower soil temperature which the cool-season grasses that make up most of our pastures prefer. The 10-14 days of rest will allow the grass to regrow. 

The difference between continuous grazing and two rotations will make a big difference in pasture production. On the farm where my spring cows are, we rotate through six different pastures. We rotate cows once a week, usually on Saturday mornings. This year, we were able to make it into December without feeding hay. 

We could have gone through the rotations one more time but wanted to leave more cover so the grass will start growing earlier in the spring. 

Trial and error

Creating a rotational grazing system takes time. You will go through a lot of trial and error. You may change things up every couple of years until you find what works best for you. 

You may have to invest some money in water development, whether that means developing springs or installing pumps and pipelines into existing ponds or wells. The more water you have, the more you can rotate your livestock. 

Once your cows are rotated through the pastures a few times, they will figure out when to be at the gate, ready to move to the next pasture or paddock. 

An advantage of rotational grazing that a lot of farmers talk to me about is that their cattle are easier to handle. This is a big stress reducer when it is time to work cows. 

Stockpiling

Stockpiling is another option. One option for stockpiling that is probably the easiest to use is grazing hayfields in the fall. Instead of saving the hayfields for late in the fall, I would only take one cutting, and graze them during the late summer and early fall. This will give the pastures a long rest period. The pastures can be grazed when the grass in the hayfields is starting to get short. 

The hayfields should be given time to regrow to have adequate cover going into winter. If the hayfields are too short, hay production will be affected the following year. 

By grazing the hayfields instead of taking additional cuttings, there will be a great reduction in nutrients removed from the fields, reducing fertilizer requirements next year. The savings of fuel is another advantage of grazing hayfields. 

Hay storage

Storing hay inside is the best way to save hay and reduce the amount of hay you have to make or purchase. Losses from storing hay outside can be 33% or more. That means for every 100 bales you make, 33 of them are wasted. If you value a bale at $30, that’s $990 rotting in the bale storage area. 

Hay barns do not have to be extravagant. They just have to keep the hay out of the weather. If you cut out the 33% loss, you don’t have to cover as many acres. Part of the hay acreage can be added to your grazing rotation. This reduces fertilizer, fuel, net wrap or twine costs, and saves your time.

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