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Rotational-Grazing Systems Fared Better During Drought

Diana Sheridan knows a healthy pasture when she sees one. She knows an unhealthy pasture when she sees one, too.


So last fall when the resource conservationist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was conducting field reviews in Lawrence County, she quickly detected a pattern: ranchers who were using rotational-grazing systems had grass in their paddocks, and ranchers not using rotational-grazing systems did not.


“I went to about 30 farms during the summer that had been enrolled in the state’s emergency program to provide livestock water during the drought, and when I went back in October to make sure the work had been done, they still didn’t have any grass,” Sheridan says. “But then I would go next door to check out ranches enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and they would have grass.”


The one thing that the CSP ranches had in common was that to be accepted into the NRCS program, they were required to have rotational-grazing systems. Sheridan explains that rotational grazing systems keep grass plants healthy because they do not allow the grass to be overgrazed and provide ample time for the grass to rest between grazing periods. A well-managed rotational-grazing system in which grass is stockpiled often provides quality forage well into the winter.


With rotational-grazing or strip-grazing systems, cattle are turned into a small pasture, or paddock, and allowed to graze it for a short time. But they are moved out of that paddock and into another one before they graze the grass too closely. And they are not given access to an already grazed paddock until its grass has recovered and grown back to a healthy height. Sometimes the cattle are kept in a “sacrifice” paddock and fed hay until the other paddocks have sufficiently recovered.


“The ranchers who don’t have rotational grazing systems don’t have a sacrifice pasture,” Sheridan says. “They just have to open their gates and let the cattle graze, so the grass never gets to rest.”


Mark Kennedy, NRCS’ state grazing lands specialist, says that he has noticed the same pattern as Sheridan as he has traveled throughout Missouri.


“The people who were able to rest pastures and not let the cows nip off the first green that came back when they got some rain had pastures that really responded well, and there was very little loss of stand,” Kennedy says.


Kennedy says several things interact to make rotational grazing (sometimes referred to as management-intensive grazing) more drought resistant and resilient. Kennedy mentioned six keys:

 

  • Resting pastures. He says the worst thing a grazier can do during a drought is move animals to a pasture before it has recovered
  • Well-managed grazing systems have diverse plants that respond to a wider range of growing conditions, including soil type, moisture availability and temperature.
  • Managed pastures have deeper root systems that pull moisture from lower in the soil profile
  • Managed pastures have thicker stands of grass and more ground cover that catches more rainfall and reduces evaporation
  • The thicker grass in managed pastures keeps the soil cooler
  • Managed grazing stretches out the limited forage supplies through better utilization.

John Wheeler, of Marionville, raises cattle on three different 80-acre farms. Two of his farms have nine paddocks and one has 11. He says he was surprised by how well the grass responded on the heels of the 2012 drought.
“I thought a lot of the grass was dead, but we got a little rain and it came back great,” Wheeler says.


Wheeler says he was sold on rotational grazing even before the drought.


“I’ve been using rotational grazing for 15 years, and the main thing that I have noticed is that I can run a lot more cattle on the same number of acres with it,” Wheeler says.


But Wheeler says better grass, more holding capacity, feeding less hay, and better drought recovery aren’t the only benefits that he derives from rotational grazing.


“What I really like about it is having control of the cattle,” he says. “Before when I tried to move them, it was like a rodeo. But with rotational grazing, they know they are going to better grass and they are eager go where I want them to go.”


Wheeler says rotational grazing also has extended his grazing season. In fact, in late December his cattle still had ample grass to eat in his strip-grazing system. And on a cold, snowy, windy day, all Wheeler had to do was remove a temporary, single-strand electric fence and watch his cattle eagerly move into a rested section of pasture.


“His system is a good example of what we’ve been seeing with rotational-grazing systems,” Sheridan says. “We’ve been promoting warm-season grasses as grazing system savers during drought years. And they really help. But I’ve also been surprised at how well the cool-season grass has bounced back in these systems.”


She says that Wheeler and other ranchers are benefiting from managing their pastures for maximum productivity and health.


NRCS offers free technical assistance as well as a number of programs that provide financial assistance to land users. Contact a local NRCS office to learn about available assistance.