Overgrazing or continuous grazing is a well-known threat that poses serious challenges to the environment. In addition to altering the vegetation structure and composition in an area, overgrazing also causes soil erosion and disrupts the microbial system.
To avoid this bad practice, more and more ranchers are now embracing rotational grazing. Here’s everything you need to know about rotational grazing systems.
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Rotational Grazing Overview
Rotational grazing refers to the practice of moving animals from one paddock or pasture to another to avoid overgrazing one particular area. Rotational grazing gives different forage species a rest period to regrow before they are grazed again. A rotational grazing system is ideal for all ruminants, including cows, sheep, goats, and horses.
Farmers can take different approaches when practicing rotational grazing. The easiest method involves rotating livestock between paddocks at the end of a given grazing period. For example, you may move livestock between paddocks after two days, one week, or one month. Grazing is done on the same paddock just once in a grazing season so each pasture is given a rest period to ensure regrowth.
A rotational grazing system usually involves several key steps:
- Decide on the size and number of paddocks required
- Divide the pasture area to smaller paddocks using temporary or electric fencing
- Establish reliable water systems in each paddock
- Start grazing paddocks with forage plants in optimum condition first
- Move animals when the forage plants have been grazed to a reasonable level
- Spread manure in the previously grazed paddocks to ensure faster regrowth
The right rotational period for your paddocks are typically reliant on how much your cattle eat. Other factors include the forage quality and quantity, and the number of other pastures available.
Electric fencing is often used by graziers to divide and manage the paddocks. Once the grazing grounds are established, you can employ one of the most common rotational grazing strategies.
Rotational grazing systems can be classified according to the number of animals per acre, number of paddocks, and frequency of rotation. These rotational grazing management strategies vary from the least intensive rotational grazing system to the most intensive one.
Here are the major rotational grazing categories:
Slow rotational grazing: this involves two or more paddocks with the grazing animals being moved every two weeks or every few months. Producers may slow down the moves depending on the season or grazing pressure, for example, during the summer, when forage growth slows.
Simple rotational grazing: this involves scheduled moves every few days to give grazed pastures time to recover and regrow.
Management intensive grazing: this is a more structured strategy whereby moves are made every one to four days. Usually, this involves several permanent paddocks and a temporary fencing system to create small paddocks. When implemented properly, intensive rotational grazing can help you increase soil fertility, forage production, animal performance, and net profits.
Mob grazing: this has higher stocking rates with several moves every day to maintain the required stock densities. A temporary fencing system is necessary to build smaller paddocks. Pastures are allowed longer rest periods of around 60 to 90 days.
Creep grazing: this type of rotational grazing involves smaller animals that are allowed to graze on regions where the larger animals cannot enter. This method is achieved by having special creep gates or fences that allow only the small animals to access.
There are several benefits of rotational grazing that can be derived by successfully implementing the above strategies with livestock.
Improves Animal Management
Livestock grazing becomes easier when the animals are moved to new pastures in a less stressful manner. Once the forage plants in the first paddock are consumed, simply let them into the next pasture and the animals will easily adjust.
Increases Harvest Efficiency
Experience has shown that rotational grazing improves harvest efficiency due to increased utilization levels as the animals start eating the less desirable grasses and weeds. The next plant recovery period boosts plant vigor, which justifies the increased grazing pressure.
Increases Soil Fertility
Since plants get long rest periods after grazing, they are able to recover and grow new roots. Forage plants shed their root tissue every year, meaning more organic matter is added to the soil. This natural root material breaks down and feeds microorganisms in the soil, thereby improving soil health and plant growth rates.
Increases Forage Production
You can expect forage production to increase as soil fertility increases. By minimizing the consumption of individual forage plants, their leaves are allowed to flourish over time.
Boosts Drought Resistance
The maintenance of plants across a large area allows for slow movement of rain water. This allows more water to be gradually absorbed by the soil. This is particularly beneficial during hot or drought seasons, as pastures become more resistant to the effects of the harsh conditions.
Improves Herd Health
When moving livestock more frequently, you can keep a closer eye on each animal. This allows you to detect and address any health problems in a timely manner. Plus, your animals can maintain a steadier level of nutrition since they have access to new and fresh feed more frequently.
Despite the many benefits of rotational grazing explained above, there are a few downsides to keep in mind.
Rotational grazing will require more active livestock and pasture management and can be more expensive. Costs include:
- Additional fencing and gates
- Additional watering systems
- Likelihood of decreased animal performance
Some people think that rotational grazing simply means moving livestock from paddock to paddock without any reasoning behind it, but this is a misconception. Rotational grazing is heavily dependent on getting the timing of moving your cattle right so you can reap the maximum benefits of your pasture.