Rotational Grazing Improves Pasture Use

— Written By and last updated by

Abundant forage growth is what all livestock producers would like to see in pastures. By following basic management tasks, like fertilizing according to soil test results, controlling weeds and planting clovers to enhance available nitrogen, producers will help provide this growth. However, don’t make the mistake of following good forage production with poor harvest procedures. One of the biggest mistakes that producers make is poorly utilizing excess pasture growth.

A tall fescue pasture’s initial growth during the spring is good quality forage. The new growth is high in protein and energy. But as the spring progresses, the grass begins to mature and sends up a seedhead. The main goal of the plant changes from growing leaves to producing seeds in order to reproduce itself. The amount of leaf growth diminishes as energy from the sun is going toward seedhead production rather than leaf production. Forage quality drops rapidly. As the leaves mature, the protein and energy levels decrease and fiber levels increase. The result is lower quality forage.

The problems of low quality and reduced leaf growth in the late spring and early summer are the result of excess forage growth in pastures. The plants are growing faster than livestock can eat them. Producers can overcome the problems of decreasing quality by employing good grazing principles. Controlled grazing is simple if you understand one basic concept. The goal is to manage livestock so they eat all the forage available in the pasture without overgrazing. If cattle are given a large area to graze, they will concentrate grazing activity close to water and shade. Other areas of the pasture will not be grazed, resulting in wasted forage. If forage on the edges of the pasture is not grazed, it will get mature, drop in quality and be wasted. In a good grazing program, pasture size is reduced and cattle are concentrated on a smaller area where they cannot be selective as to where they graze. They are forced to graze the entire pasture and remove all of the forage. Little forage is wasted using these principles. After livestock graze the forage in this smaller pasture (or paddock), down to 3-4 inches, they are moved or rotated into a new paddock, and the process starts over again.

Utilizing this type of management helps in two basic ways. First, as mentioned earlier, it decreases the amount of wasted forage. In the spring some of the acreage can be cut for hay because not as many acres are needed for grazing. As spring progresses and high temperatures develop, forage growth will decrease. The acres that were used for hay can then be put into the grazing rotation. The early forage growth that in the past was wasted on the edge of the pastures will now be put up as hay. Second, this form of management allows a rest period for the plants. Once the paddock is grazed down, livestock are moved to a new paddock, and plants in the previous paddock are allowed to regrow. This important during the summer, when high temperatures and drought are stressful for tall fescue. Instead of being continuously grazed, the young regrowth is allowed to fully regrow, restore depleted root energy reserves, and recover. This will result in quicker regrowth and a healthier stand. The advantages are clear: decreasing pasture size and concentrating livestock on a smaller area of land will improve forage utilization, decrease stand loss from overgrazing, and improve per acre production of forage making the pastures more productive and the producer more efficient.