ABCs of Rotational Grazing: An SCS grazing specialist answers beginning

ITHACA, N.Y.–In Part 1, I helped you calculate how many paddocks and how much pasture you need to start rotational grazing. (See "ABCs Of Rotational Grazing," The New Farm, May/June '91.) I'm sure you've got other questions on your mind by now. Here are the ones I get asked most often:

What kind of fencing should I use? It's your choice. But whatever you use, I suggest building as many permanent paddocks as you think you'll need, based on the Steps outlined in Part I. I think permanent fencing actually adds to your flexibility, because then you can hook up polywire almost anywhere if you need to subdivide further. The secret is to have enough permanent subdivisions in the system so that you can't go wrong if your labor resources get stretched thin.

I'm wary of setting up systems that require you to move temporary fencing every time you move livestock. Moving wire is very labor-intensive. Some farmers enjoy it. But for many, the thrill wears off pretty fast. Some say it only takes them 20 minutes to move fence. It takes me 10 minutes just to get my boots on and get out the door.

When you're milking by yourself because your spouse is sick, the kids are getting hungry and there's a cold rain falling, you won't want to spend even 20 minutes moving fence. That's why I suggest designing your permanent fencing so all you have to do is open a gate before you go make supper.

What shape should my paddocks be? For best use of forage, the closer to square your paddock is, the better. Rectangles are OK as long as they are no more than four times longer than they are wide. With bigger rectangular paddocks, livestock will graze the gate ends more heavily than the far nooks and crannies. If you must build long paddocks, use polywire or other temporary fencing to break them up into shorter rectangles or squares.

How should I orient my paddocks on slopes?
Don't run rectangular paddocks up and down slopes with gates and water at the bottom. Livestock will graze half-way up the slope, then come back for water and start grazing again at the bottom. You 're up with overgrazing at the low end, and undergrazing at the far end. Whenever practical, make your paddocks along the contour, and run lanes up and down the slope.

Where should I put my gates?
Locate gates in the direction of the natural flow of the herd–usually at the end of the paddock closest to the barn. If you don't, when half the herd wakes up and sees the rest of the herd heading down the lane, they'll head for a gateless corner to catch up. They may never find their way out.

Where should I locate water?
The more accessible, the better. But you probably don't need waterers in every paddock. You can make one waterer serve two paddocks by locating it in the fenceline. Putting the waterer in the lane to serve several paddocks is OK. But the area is likely to get muddy, and manure will accumulate where it's not fertilizing your pastures.

Some farmers who are quite successful with rotational grazing only have water back at the barn. You run the risk that the livestock will come back for a drink and won't go back out to graze, and you're likely to suffer some production loss with high-producing animals. But if that's your only option, don't let it stop you from grazing. Compared to confinement feeding, you'll more than make up for any production losses with the cheap feed, and your cows will be in great shape.

How tall should the pasture be when I start grazing?
With most improved pastures consisting of grasses like brome, fescue, orchardgrass and timothy, as well as legumes like red clover, ladino clover and birdsfoot trefoil, I tell farmers to start grazing when the plants are about 8 to 10 inches tall. In early spring, you can start when they're about 4 to 6 inches tall. That saves you a few extra days of winter feed, plus it helps stagger pasture regrowth a little bit.

But don't be tempted to start too soon or you'll damage the pasture and it won't recover. I'd rather have the grass ahead of the cows than the cows ahead of the grass. Don't start grazing early in the same paddock every year. Rotate your "sacrifice area."

When should I move the livestock to new grass?
Some people will suggest you graze pastures right down to the dirt before moving cattle. I don't. With the improved forage species I mentioned above, leave at least 2 inches of stubble so that there is enough leaf area to ensure quick regrowth. It's about 2 inches from the tip of my middle finger to my knuckle. I simply stick my hand down through the grass to the ground to measure it.

If you don't leave 2 inches, those improved species won't bounce back quickly. Weeds and other less productive species will move in and take over. Also if you have livestock on too long, they have to work too hard to get enough dry matter. With high-producing animals, like milk cows, production will drop if you don't move them before the grass gets too short.

There's one exception to the 2-inch rule of thumb. You can't graze blue-grass/white clover pastures too close to damage them. Grazing that kind of pasture down to 1 inch helps maintain the white clover in the stand. Still, you have to move the livestock when those species get too short for the animals to graze efficiently. You can also start grazing bluegrass/white clover when it's about 4 to 6 inches tall.

Will I need to clip my pastures?
Clipping pastures can be a real waste of time, money and effort–especially if done for no better reason than to make the pasture look pretty. You should clip pastures when you have a problem, but not just to even up the grass. Harvest as much as you can with your livestock, first. Then mechanically harvest the surplus to be fed during the winter. If some of your paddocks still get away from you, then by all means, clip them. But as you fine-tune your management, you should find you have to clip less often.

How about shade?
Many dairy farmers are so concerned about shade that they refuse to put cows on pasture without it. The truth is, in the Northeast there are but a handful of days in a normal summer when lack of shade should be a concern. When heat is a problem, dairy cows can be turned out early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid heat. Shade isn't a necessity–good management is.

What about dragging?
With continuous grazing, dragging is almost a necessity. But once you get a good rotational system down, you probably won't need to drag very much. Like clipping, you may even be able to eliminate it completely. You'll find that the livestock will distribute manure more evenly, and that the manure will break up and disappear faster. You may still need to drag near waterers and loafing areas.

How do I balance rations when my animals are grazing?
That's a good question. But even if you don't balance your milk cow's ration exactly right, you're still going to end up making cheaper milk.

Ed Rayburn, grasslands specialist at Seneca Trails RC&D in Franklinville, N.Y., is developing a computer program to answer that tough question. It's part of a three-year project funded by the federal LISA research program, and should be released in late '91 or early '92. (Look. for a review in an upcoming issue of The New Farm.)

Ration balancing is important, says Rayburn, because you can loose a pound of milk for every pound of grain you don't feed that your milk cows need. But he's encouraged, because the principles of ration balancing on pasture are the same as barn feeding. He offers the following guidelines:

  • Make sure 20 to 50 percent of your pasture is legume to increase forage intake.
  • Make sure cows have enough forage when you turn them in-8 to 10 inches of improved grasses and legumes or 4 to 6 inches of bluegrass/white clover.
  • Start balancing your ration with a good carbohydrate source–shell corn, ear corn, barley or oats in moderation. Adequate carbohydrates are needed to make the best use of degradable protein in pasture forage.
  • With Holsteins averaging 60 to 70 pounds or more of milk per day, bypass protein becomes the limiting factor. In the 60- to 70-pound range, adding distillers grain should be sufficient. Above 70 pounds, add roasted or extruded soybeans (also a good source of oils and amino acids) or animal products.
  • Don't overfeed grain, or fiber intake levels will be too low. Too much protein can also reduce milk production.

I've done everything you suggested, and I'm still not getting the production you promised. What should I do?
First, you can live with pastures that aren't very productive even under intensive management by either cutting down the number of animals you're grazing or by increasing your pasture acreage. Chances are good those pastures are still more profitable than raising corn silage.

The next troubleshooting step is to take a good, hard look at your soil test. Ideally, you should test your soil before you set up your pasture system. But with the low priority most pastures have gotten in the past, soil testing usually comes as an afterthought.

Even if you do test your soil first, don't run out and order enough fertilizer and lime to grow 10-ton alfalfa. Most intensive grazing systems do just fine at moderate pH and fertility levels. If your soil is very acidic, lime to bring the pH up to about 6.0. Bring P and K levels up to the medium to high range suggested by your land grant university for grass/legume hay at yield goals appropriate for your fields.

Should I reseed my pasture?
If production is still less than you want after correcting any fertility problems, consider changing your pasture species. From my experience, this should be a last resort. But for years, it's been the first solution people think of. The typical scenario is this: Your pasture wears out. So you seed in some legumes or grasses, and maybe put on some fertilizer. Then you go on grazing it continuously and the new species disappear again.

You've got to change your management first. When mismanaged, grazing animals are nothing more than destructive pasture predators that can eat themselves out of house and home. Until you control your animals, reseeding is a waste of time and money. Only after you have established the grazing system, soil tested and fertilized should you even think about reseeding a pasture.

Chances are good that well-adapted forage species are right there waiting for you. At the Cornell Hillside Pasture Research Project, we cleared brush from an abandoned pasture one spring, and grazed it hard all summer. There was some pretty good orchardgrass coming in all by itself. But we no-till seeded the pasture with brome and birdsfoot trefoil in August. It took really well. After a couple of years, however, the brome and trefoil were gone, and–you guessed it –we had a great stand of orchardgrass. Live and learn.

If you do reseed, don't plow up your pasture. Frost-seed or drill new species into the existing sod. If you really did pick species that are better for your soils and management than the ones that are already there, the new ones will take over.

If you're really determined to do some seeding, don't look at your pastures. Look at some of your worn-out alfalfa fields. With a little fencing and seed, you could probably turn them into great pastures.

Or better yet, look at that corn field next to the barn, it's probably got great fertility from all the manure that's been spread there. Seed it down. Without corn, you won't have to spray so close to the house anymore. And the cows will be grazing right there where you can keep an eye on them.

"But Darrell, that's corn ground," you say. Sure. When that corn is 7 feet tall, it looks like a lot of feed. But it's in rows 3 feet apart and only grows a short time during the year. Pasture covers every inch of that soil and is green and growing eight months out of 12.

Unless you're getting 16 tons of silage off that field, you're losing money. In my mind, that's not corn ground. That's pasture ground. Plant it to pasture and develop a good grazing system and you'll get 5 tons of the cheapest high-quality feed you've ever raised, instead of losing money. Break out of that corn mindset. It may be the best move you ever made.

Editor's Note: Darrell L. Emmick is state grasslands specialist for the Soil Conservation Service in New York. Part I of this feature appeared in the May/ June '91 issue of The New Farm.

Reproduced with permission of the publisher. The New Farm, July/August 1991, p. 26-28.