Rotational Grazing

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Abundant forage growth is wonderful to see in pastures. Following basic recommendations like fertilizing according to soil test results, controlling weeds and planting clovers will help provide this growth. However, don’t follow good forage production with poor harvest procedures.

One of the mistakes that occur every year in pastures is poor utilization of excess pasture growth. A tall fescue plant’s initial growth during the spring is good quality forage. The new leaves are high in protein and energy. But as the spring progresses, the plant matures and produces a seedhead. The main goal of the plant changes from trying to grow leaves to filling the seeds in order to reproduce itself. The amount of leaf growth drops because energy is going to the seedhead instead of the parts of the plant that produce leaves. Forage quality also drops. As the leaves are growing older, the protein and energy levels are decreasing and the fiber level is increasing. 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 the livestock can eat them. The difficulties caused by this excess growth can be minimized if good grazing principles are used.

Controlled grazing is simple if you understand one basic concept. The goal is to force livestock to eat all the forage available in the pasture without overgrazing. If livestock are given a large area to graze, they will do the most of their grazing 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 livestock 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. After livestock graze the forage in this smaller pasture (or paddock), they are moved 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 is important during the summer, when high temperatures and drought are stressful for tall fescue. Instead of being constantly 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.