Developing a Grazing Plan

  • ONE

    What are your goals and objectives and how would you prioritize them?  Consider tradeoffs among short- and long-term profitability, building the soil, animal performance, lifestyle, and other goals.  Think through worst case scenarios and determine how you would want to proceed.

  • TWO

    How much forage do you have and at what times? Is it diverse enough to be nutritionally balanced or is supplemental feeding and/or seeding necessary?  How long is the grazing season likely to be?

    Determining forage dry matter availability calls for a bit of math.  We’ll walk through it in the next section.

  • THREE

    How much forage do your livestock need and at what times? What quality is needed at different stages?  How well does your forage quality and quantity match your goals for stocking rate and average daily gain?  Does this support profitability?

    Again, a little math will get you started.  Over time, the best information will come from observing your animals and how they gain and produce under different circumstances.

    Our grass-fed calculator contains an over-/under- analysis that will help you better understand your break-even costs on cattle investments.

  • FOUR

    How important is flexibility to you? Infrastructure can be more or less permanent.  Building in the opportunity to adjust the boundaries of your paddocks is critical to a more adaptive system.  If you expect to make changes over time, building flexibility into your infrastructure from the planning stage can save time and money later.

    We have detailed how-to videos covering fencing and a video overview of watering systems.

    Read about infrastructure

Planning approaches:

  • A personal plan may simply include articulating answers to the above questions then mapping your land and setting paddocks – determining infrastructure, forage availability and quality, herd sizes and types, and a general rotation schedule and plan.
  • Through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is a cost-share program, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will pay for part of the cost of initial infrastructure, but EQIP requires a grazing plan written by them or a certified provider. Such grazing plans contain many of the same elements as above but focus specifically on environmental concerns on the land and how to work with them.

Whole farm planning approaches offer a step-by-step systematic way of planning and integrating priorities. Some find the rigor of an established process helpful.

There are a number of tools for mapping your farm and maintaining ongoing records of your cattle, forage, paddock utilization, etc.  Many graziers like to use  paper charts, excel spreadsheets and hand-drawn maps.  Others are excited about the technological tools emerging to track this information.  Our favorite mapping tool right now is PastureMap from Summer Technologies.  It’s free to map your paddocks and start tracking, though ongoing record-keeping will require a subscription.  For mapping without the tracking, farmers and landowners can produce their own digital maps with Google Earth Maps.

Some Guidance on Using EQIP and other NRCS Programs

NRCS cost-share for farmers can be highly valuable in making improvements more affordable. However, it’s not the right option for everyone. If you are interested in NRCS programs, speak to graziers that have participated in the program. It can be a time consuming process and can vary significantly in terms of ease and competition for the funding at the local level.

The funding process has a set timetable. EQIP applications are typically due in November of each year and finding decisions are announced the following March or April. Dispersion or availability of any funds awarded can be highly variable depending on congressional budget approval. EQIP funding is not equally dispersed in all regions, states, and counties. Talk to your local NRCS office about their priorities, backlog, and what they’ll agree to cost-share. If you’re considering cost-share for fencing or watering systems, be sure to get a copy of their requirements.

For cost-share funds to be dispersed into your farm account, you must follow all specifications for materials and construction of fencing, water systems, heavy use areas, and all other improvements carefully. Failure to follow USDA NRCS EQIP specifications will disqualify you from funding. A timetable for completion of each task will be provided by the USDA NRCS and adherence to that timetable is required before funds will be dispersed to your account.

Particularly, requirements around materials used impact whether cost share makes sense for you. For instance, for fencing, specified and new materials are required. If you have materials you were planning to use, you’ll need to determine if the cost-share makes up for the extra cost of buying the materials new.

Each approved task must be fully completed and inspected and approved by your local NRCS office before cost share funds are deposited (you will need to cover expenses upfront). These are cost share programs, so you will be fully responsible for all costs above the NRCS EQIP award.