Re-Evaluating Pasture Utilization

Dean Kreager, Ohio State University Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator, Licking County (originally published in Ohio Farmer on-line)

Leaving adequate forage mass is essential for optimum regrowth when rotational grazing.

Farmland prices continue to rise and so does the value of pastureland.  As I listen to discussions on renewable energy, carbon sequestration, and land development, I can only imagine that land values will continue to rise.  As land values go up so will rental rates for both farmland and pasture.  Sometimes the true value of pasture forage is overlooked and not maximized.  Is there a practical option to increase productivity on your pastureland and increase your profit per acre?

Grazed forage is your chance to have a high-quality feed without the expenses and time needed to make hay.  The more days out of the year animals are grazing, the less stored forage is needed, and the less time is spent feeding stored forages.  Let the cows do the work as much of the year as possible.

Many grazing systems have been used and each have their own advantages and disadvantages.  As land values and expenses go up it may be time to re-evaluate your method.  Grazing systems can be broken down into three general categories: (1) continuous grazing, (2) simple rotational grazing, and (3) intensive rotational grazing.

With continuous grazing, cattle are turned into one pasture where they remain until the end of the season.  Many farms use continuous grazing.  This system has less fencing required and cattle do not need to be moved which reduces labor.  On the downside, pastures are not as productive and therefore less cattle can be pastured per acre when compared to rotational systems.  Animals will naturally graze some areas heavy while others are avoided.  This habit leads to uneven manure distribution and often weed issues as weeds go to seed in ungrazed areas.  Over time, constant traffic also takes its toll.  There is no recovery period in this system.  Think about the grass on a practice football field that is used daily compared to the game field that is used once a week and then rested.  This may date me as many schools have switched to an artificial turf.  Many continuous grazed pastures will have either one water access point or a stream with multiple access points.

Simple rotational grazing consists of using two or maybe a few pastures.  Cattle are rotated between these pastures to allow a rest period for regrowth.  Enough forage is left in the pasture to maintain root mass, which will help with regrowth, and maintain shading of the ground, to reduce evaporation of soil moisture.  Research has shown this rest period can increase productivity by around 20% which would allow either more animals on the same area or a longer grazing season.  Other advantages over continuous grazing include a more even manure distribution and less areas that are either overgrazed or avoided.  This system does require a little more labor as cattle need to be moved periodically.  Additional fencing is needed compared to a single pasture.  This additional fence can often be a single electric strand for dividing the larger more securely fenced pasture.  An additional water source may be needed depending on the configuration of the fencing.

Intensive rotational grazing has many variations in how it is implemented.  In general, it will consist of many (often 8 or more) small pastures.  Cattle are rotated frequently to new sections to maximize the rest period while removing seed heads to keep the plants in a more nutritious vegetative stage.  A heavy concentration of cattle in a smaller area for a short period of time does less damage than a lighter concentration for a longer time.  An additional 20% bump in production could be seen when compared to simple rotational grazing.  When compared to continuous grazing this could amount to a 40% or more increase in forage production.  This provides the opportunity for an increase in the number of cattle on the pasture or a longer increase in the grazing days further reducing reliance on stored forages.  Studies have shown that these intensive systems provide a more even distribution of nutrients through manure and a reduction in weed pressure.  The fencing requirements, water source access, and labor all go up with this system.

Water sources often are a limiting factor when it comes to dividing pastures for rotational grazing.  Think creatively on ways to utilize what you have available and remember there are many seasonal above ground systems that can work well in some situations.  In addition, your Natural Resource Conservation Service Technician or your County Soil and Water personnel may know of water source development opportunities.  This could include spring developments, water piping, stream access points, and other options.  For example, some areas of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District will provide a 100% cost share on stream exclusion fencing as well as stream crossing improvement, and off stream water development.

My experience of going from continuous grazing to four sections, and then with water access improvements, to eight sections has provided big gains in productivity with each step.  Is there room for improvement in your grazing management system that can help you achieve a greater profit.