Rotational Pasture Planning
Jul 02, 2012
Rotational Pasture Planning
An effective rotational grazing system can be an affordable way to provide forage to your cattle, pigs, sheep, etc., and reduce herd nutrition costs year-round. Most dairy producers in our area have cattle that never leave their milking stalls, not to mention see growing grass. They say it’s easier for them if they don’t have to round up their milkers 2-3 times a day. In my opinion, those types of producers should get out of farming, because if you don’t respect animals, you don’t deserve the right to own them! Cattle as well as pigs, chickens, lambs, etc., are meant to be outside, on grass. Not inside, on concrete all their lives, with artificial light, timed feeding and no real sense of "living." But that’s just my opinion.
Permanent resources, such as soil type, water supply and slope of your pastures, will affect your fencing layout plan. Pastures should have similar soil type, slope to provide uniform forage production and grazing distribution throughout the entire season or even year-round.
The first step in setting up your rotational grazing system is to determine the number of animals, type of forages you have and the time of year they are growing or dormant, and number of paddocks/pastures needed for the forages to have ample rest periods during rotation of your livestock. Many effective fencing options are available to livestock producers. Whether used as permanent or temporary confinements, fences should be carefully planned and constructed for long life and ease of use when moving your livestock.
Semi-permanent resources, including water and shade, are critical for livestock productivity, but can be modified to accommodate the fencing layout.
Water – A continuous supply of clean water is essential for all livestock. Water is a critical nutrient required for a wide variety of body functions in cattle. Adequate clean water is a key part of rotational grazing systems. When possible, supply clean water in each paddock within a reasonable walking distance. Any fencing design should allow for flexibility of water trough placement within paddocks to control manure distribution and avoid mud around the water source. If a single water source is used in a particular paddock, make sure that that it can provide the volume of water needed during peak demand.
Shade is a major factor to consider when building fences. Shade does not decrease air temperature, but it does reduce animal exposure to the sun’s radiant energy. Adequate shade can reduce respiration rate and body temperature in livestock during the hottest times of the day. Shade also alters the grazing habits of cattle. Cattle with access to shade have shown a 3% increase in feed efficiency and a 6% increase in weight gain during hot weather.
If you don’t have natural shade structures such as woods or a tree line, portable shade structures made from galvanized pipe frames can be sturdy enough to withstand most livestock activity. Shades can be moved with cattle as needed or moved to various locations within paddocks to avoid mud and manure buildup. Cattle require shades at least 10 ft. tall. Cover shade with shade cloth to allow adequate air movement. At minimum, 400-lb. calves require around 18 sq. ft. of shade per head, and 800-lb. yearlings require approximately 25 sq. ft. of shade per head.
A combination of cool- and warm-season grasses such as orchardgrass and endophyte-free fescue, along with compatible legumes such as alfalfa and white clovers, can provide the perfect forage supply throughout the grazing season. And they also work well for stockpiling forages for winter grazing or even making a first cutting of hay early in the grazing season prior to turning out your cattle. If you're raising pastured pigs or sheep/lambs, white clover is the legume of choice to interseed with your native grasses.
Use temporary fences to divide pastures into rotational paddocks, such as those used in creep grazing or mob grazing. Temporary fences are often more economical than permanent fences when small paddocks are needed. If you're using tape style fencing, it is advised to use only solar fence chargers. The "plug-in" type are too powerful and will eventually fry the very small wire that runs through the tape. Plug-in type fence chargers are best utilized with high-tensile style wire.
Locations of water, shade and handling facilities such as corrals and squeeze chutes are critical to your fencing layout. Effective lane systems and gate placement make livestock movement to animal handling facilities and rotation to other pastures much easier. Be sure to place gates and passageways for livestock and equipment in the corner of each field closest to the central water source. When designing fencing layout, consider legal rights and responsibilities to avoid potential disputes with adjacent landowners. As the old saying goes, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Fence placement and layout
Fencing is a major investment. Therefore, plan your fencing layout carefully to save your operation money now and in the future. One of the benefits of a well-designed fencing system is that it can improve grazing efficiency. When your animals are allowed to just free-graze, they tend to graze the most palatable plants first and leave mature plants until last. Forage selectivity by livestock often leads to concentrated and non-uniform manure distribution in the pasture/paddock.
One of the first management considerations in designing or upgrading your rotational grazing systems is selection and installation of the proper fencing system. That means you must know what you will need to keep your livestock in and predators out. The main priority is a well built perimeter fence, whether along roads or other areas from which livestock must be excluded, such as hay fields, cropland, swales, creeks, ponds, etc. The ideal number of fenced paddocks depends on forage species, grazing pressure, rate of plant recovery (which depends greatly on weather and time of year), livestock breed, overall herd size, animal ages and weights, and production levels.
Size paddocks to provide consistent days of grazing. A minimal 30-day rotation is recommended if cattle are moved at least once a week. Four paddocks in a 30-day rotation means moving animals every 6-7 days. On the other hand, during slow winter growth or drought conditions, shorter periods between grazing rotations will be necessary to prohibit overgrazing and forage stand damage. During a drought, it may be necessary to divide your operation up into as many as eight paddocks. With this number of paddocks, gates can be opened or animals moved more often during a quick rotation, temporary electric fencing can further split paddocks during a faster rotation, or paddocks can be cut out of the rotation to allow ample regrowth or even irrigation.
On our farm, we can graze 30 100% grass-fed beefalo for a week on 2.5 acres. Therefore, we utilize four rotational paddocks throughout the grazing season and use 3.5 acres to stockpile forages (untouched), throughout the season in case there is a drought, and we need to pull them off of their regular paddocks so the forages have a chance to rest until we hopefully get some moisture. We have had times such as last summer when we needed to feed dry hay in July and August because our pastures burned up from lack of moisture.
The shape of the fenced pasture makes a big difference in the length of fence needed to enclose the pasture. Paddocks should be fairly square, minimizing soil variation and following landscape changes. A perfect square is not always possible, as access to water, shade, livestock handling facilities and the natural lay of the land must be considered. Square paddocks usually require the minimum amount of fencing and reduce distance to water sources. Rectangular paddocks should be no more than four times as long as they are wide. Pie-shaped fencing designs with a central water source can lead to mud holes where livestock congregate at water sources. In the case of sheep/lambs, a muddy or not so well drained area that is caused by high concentrations of animals, or just a low-lying area that doesn’t drain well, will cause your operation an unnecessary amount of hardship due to hoof rot. If this is allowed to happen, that pasture will never be able to be grazed again, because the bacteria that causes hoof rot is almost impossible to eradicate once it is in the soil.
The long and short of it is, plan ahead for the worst weather conditions, and be happy when they don't happen!