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Published on: 19:24PM Oct 23, 2013

Planning your 2014 rotational grazing system


   Now is the time to start planning your intensive rotational grazing system for 2014.  Here are some basic concepts to keep in mind.


   In prescribed grazing systems, fencing both temporary and permanent are extremely important for controlling animals and allowing the whole grazing system to function. There are many types of fencing systems on the market and which one you choose is not so much of an issue as choosing a quality fence that will work in your system. The first step is to install a good exterior fence to keep animals on the farm, refer to NRCS PA Tech Guide IV Fencing Spec. 382 for specifications on fencing. The interior fencing should be constructed using temporary fencing components so that the grazing system may be as flexible as possible until your system is perfected. Temporary fencing allows you to change your set up many times based on forage growth, management style changes, animal types and numbers changes, etc.


   Paddock layout and design depends on your production system and goals. If pastures are going to be rotated frequently (daily) or animals need to come back to the barn, daily stabilized laneways will be necessary. Once a rough estimate of acres and number of paddocks required are calculated, a paddock layout can take shape.  Many times it is convenient to layout a couple (6-10) large paddocks that can be subdivided later. (*Hint remember an acre is a square approx. 208 feet X 208 feet square, so if you make major subdivisions 208 feet wide it makes if much simpler to size paddocks.) Here are some things to keep in mind when building paddocks. You can fence the same amount of area (square feet) in a square or a rectangle, however, you will use less fencing materials in the square paddock so make paddocks as square as possible to keep costs lower.


Gates to enter and exit paddocks should always be placed in the corner of the paddock.


   Shade for cattle may be important depending where your farm is located and what breed of animals you are raising. For instance many times the dark breeds such as Black Angus and Holstein are more susceptible to heat stress. To minimize heat stresses in a grazing system, identify paddocks that have shade in them for the extremely hot days or portions of the day that are too hot for livestock. Many times paddocks along a tree line will have shade in them and the cows can be placed in those paddocks during the mid afternoon to avoid the heat. Another important component to reducing a heat stress is to an ample supply of quality water in the paddock where the livestock are grazing. In dairy herds milking times may be altered so that the cattle are in the barn during the hottest part of the day.


   Water placement, source, and quantity play a significant role in the success and profitability of a successful grazing system.  Fresh, clean water from springs or a well make the best water sources for animals. When grazing animals have water in every paddock in the grazing system forage will be used more efficiently. Water in every paddock also has some other benefits, such as better manure (nutrient) distribution throughout the pastures, less erosion potential in laneways, animals will spend more time grazing each day (as compared to not having water in each paddock), and reduced heat stress in the summer. For more information about water sources, water quality, water system design, etc, see your local NRCS staff or Cooperative Extension.


   Pasture fertility, health, and productivity are all interrelated.  Pasture is a crop just like corn, soybeans, hay, or silage and therefore needs to be managed like a crop. Soil fertility is extremely important and soils tests should be taken at least once every 3 years in order to effectively manage pastures. Grass pastures require a nitrogen (N) source to maximize their yield potential. The nitrogen source may come from many different sources, but I recommend legumes such as Red & White clovers and alfalfa.  If your pasture’s nitrogen source is a legume the pasture should include at least 30% legumes.  Refer to the current Penn State Agronomy Guide for soil fertility recommendations.  Legumes unlike grasses fix there own nitrogen from the air if they are properly inoculated, refer the current Penn State Agronomy Guide for seeding rates and inoculation procedures for legumes.  Pastures (forages) also require a certain amount of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) usually forages require much more potassium and nitrogen then phosphorous. Depending on soil test levels and manure application, much of the required phosphorus and potassium may come from manure. To effectively manage and account for manure produced on the farm a nutrient management plan would be of benefit in order to incorporate soil test information, manure production and utilization, as well as best management practices that would help control runoff and minimize nutrient transport to water sources. For help in developing a nutrient management plan contact your local NRCS staff or Conservation District Staff.


   Forage species in pastures should be chosen based on several factors such as there adaptations to your soil types, rainfall and climate conditions, growing season length, cost, animal performance goals, management style, etc. Refer to the current Penn State Agronomy Guide for pasture and forage seeding recommendations or contact your local NRCS Staff or Cooperative Extension.


   The laneways for animal travel from grazing paddocks to the barn are an important an essential component of a dairy grazing system where animals are moved frequently, however in a beef cattle, or sheep system they may not be as critical. If water is supplied to animals in each paddock this will reduce the amount of traffic on the laneways, therefore reducing the erosion as well as manure deposition on the laneways. On well drained soils with moderate slopes grass laneways may work.  However, for areas of heavy traffic (main laneway) a heavy use area protection treatment is recommended. Typically a laneway is built using geotextile as a base, then different layers and sizes of rock are applied, all of which are compacted to create a durable and comfortable surfaces for cattle to travel on.  Other alternatives to heavy use area protection may be to install diversions across the laneway to divert water from the lane into the pasture sod.


   Supplemental feeding should be managed so as not to degrade the pastures. In times of drought and in the winter; hay, mineral, and other supplements may be fed. If feeding in a pasture the feeding location should be moved often in order to avoid degrading the pasture. If animals are contained and fed at one central location a heavy use area protection (stabilized feeding area) should be installed to control manure and surface water runoff.  Consult with an animal nutritionist to develop a supplemental feed program that fits the needs of your herd.


   Parasite control is extremely important in a grazing livestock operation. Consult with your veterinarian about a parasite control plan that works for your operation.  Most parasites can be found at the base of forage plants where the livestock are susceptible to ingesting them.  If left untreated, internal parasites can cause problems with nutrient digestion and adsorption resulting in decreased livestock growth and productivity. For more information refer to the USDA-ARS "Graziers Notebook"

Once you have all the above recommendations in place, you need to know a few things about when to rotate your cattle in and out of your pastures/paddocks.


Regrowth in forage plants under normal growing conditions usually occurs after about 7 days.  For this reason, animals should not have access to any one paddock for more than 7 days.  If animals are given the choice they will usually eat fresh re-growth instead of the more mature forages in a pasture. If animals are not fenced out of areas that have been previously grazed they will consume the young tender re-growth and weaken the forage stand.  If this happens repeatedly forage stands will thin out, forages species will shift to species more adapted to close grazing and many times forage quality will decrease.

In times of drought it is especially important to not allow re-growth to be re-grazed.


   When rotationally grazing, a pasture should be left with a stubble height of 2-3 inches (in most cases).

The reason for leaving this stubble behind is to protect the plant’s energy reserves which are used to produce regrowth for later in the grazing season.  In grass plants the energy reserves are found in the bottom 2-3 inches of the stem base.  In plants like clovers, alfalfa, and birdsfoot trefoil the energy reserves are found in above ground steams, crown buds at the base of the plant, or in the tap root.  All paddocks should be clipped as soon after removing livestock as possible to control weeds and to spur on vegetative growth.