Making Sense of the Many Systems of Rotational Grazing

Five minutes exploring the grazing literature is enough to be horribly confused about the many systems of livestock rotation.  Each model has fervent devotees, and none is inherently right.  The meaningful question is what level of rotation makes sense for your farm and life.  That answer will almost certainly vary, by the day or over decades – to account for a weekend away, a poorly growing area, a desire to increase profitability, a problem with pink eye, kids to be kept busy, or any other of dozens of factors. Understanding the models as a continuum with trade-offs can be helpful in getting beyond the terminology and to the right decisions for you.

The main rotational grazing systems are distinct in two major ways.  First, how tightly packed the animals are, defined as stocking density in animal units (AU) or pounds per acre (for ease, we are defining one animal unit as 1000 lbs, so 14 AU per acre equals 14,000 lbs/acre). Second, how often the cattle are moved, or, related how long they are in or out of a given field.  The stocking density directly shapes how often the cattle must be moved, or rotated, to ensure they have sufficient nutrition.

Visually, the most basic continuum looks like this:

Snapshot-rotating

Increasing Stocking Density, increasing Frequency of Moves

At the core, each defined grazing system tweaks stocking density and rotation frequency.  There are other differences, too, which we’ll explore in a moment.

Grazing Systems

Deciding where you want to be on these continuums and which system or systems suit you requires thinking hard about your goals and your limits.

Here’s a basic comparison of the methods:
Grazing chart

Thinking about time commitments 

For those working off the farm or otherwise very busy, perhaps the realistic option is to build permanent paddocks once and move the cattle quickly before and after work?  Could you on weekends move them more frequently?  Will being in the field mean being alone or can it be family time?  Are others available to help?  Does it make sense for you to invest in batt latches so livestock can move to an ungrazed field without assistance?

Every farming operation takes a lot of time.  Sometimes it’s in bursts, when you’re planting, harvesting, cutting hay, calving, or fixing machinery.  You make time for these demands because you have to.  Intensifying rotation reduces these sporadic and intensive time demands while requiring more regular engagement with your animals and land.  Doing a good job at more intensive rotational grazing means paying close attention to your soils, the forages, livestock performance, indicator species (earthworms, spiders, dung beetles, cricket and grasshoppers, pollinator insects, etc.), plant species diversity, wildlife and bird species diversity, and profitability.  It’s the trade-off of fixing machinery less and being out in the fields more that makes us argue that this is a more enjoyable form of agriculture.

Those new to rotational grazing may assume that fence building and moving cattle will be difficult or time consuming. Experienced graziers take anywhere from a couple of hours to a day to set their fences.  Livestock quickly become trained so that most moves take between five and fifteen minutes.

Visit infrastructure to learn more about fencing and watering systems.

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Changes to expect as rotations intensify:

Increased:
  • forage biomass
  • soil organic matter
  • soil aggregation
  • soil microbial populations
  • water infiltration
  • water quality
  • plant species diversity and complexity
  • plant brix and nutritive value
  • pollinator insects, birds and wildlife
Reduced:
  • fertilizer needs
  • need for mechanical or chemical weed and brush control
  • soil erosion and harmful runoff
  • drought and flood impact

Increased:
  • utilization of forage on a year-round basis
  • performance
  • consistency in manure & urine application
  • stocking rates over time (as biomass increases)
  • ability to support multi-species grazing
Reduced:
  • external and internal parasites
  • common disease issues
  • need for antibiotic treatment
  • need for administered hormone treatment
  • supplementation – hay and/or other feedstuffs
  • livestock costs of production (COP)

Increased:
  • investment in fencing and watering systems
  • time spent interacting with the livestock and observing them and the land
  • observational skills
  • net return per acre
  • enjoyment (in our humble opinions)
  • ability to capture available market premiums
Reduced:
  • need for equipment, fertilizer, supplemental feed and hay
  • labor needed for operating equipment, maintaining equipment, haying and feeding