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Rotational Grazing Is Not a One Size Fits All Approach

By Christy Morgan, program analyst with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Lexington, Kentucky

Tom Wimpsett

Tom Wimpsett bought his farm 35 years ago when the land was used for tobacco, hogs, and cattle.  That farm now functions solely as a cattle farm.  The operation has grown and through proper attention, the land has improved making the business sustainable for many years to come.

Wimpsett grew up on a tobacco farm near the Daviess and Ohio County line.  One of 10 children, he grew up working on the farm.  “I was active as a boy in 4-H showing cattle which made me really begin to appreciate the cattle business,” he said.

Also inspired by Dr. Randolph Richards, the chairman of the Agronomy Department at WKU in the 60’s, Wimpsett set his sights on operating a cattle business of his own. He laughs remembering his days at WKU saying, “I was the best C+ student Western ever graduated.”  Regardless of the grade he received, his knowledge of plants and grasses and their relationship to nutrients and animal health is second to none.

After retiring from the feed business, Wimpsett now devotes his time to the cattle operation on his farm.  He started with 35 cows, but was challenged with achieving the proper rotational balance to optimize both the pastures and animals.   “I remember years ago attending a workshop where Walter “Roy” Burriss (UK Extension Beef Specialist) talked about the benefits of doubling the size of the herd,” he said.  Wimpsett began to test that theory and found it to be very beneficial to his operation.

Wimpsett grew his herd to 80 cows and divided them into four herds. “I found that there was in fact a relationship to stocking rates and plant and animal production,” he said. He turned to the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) in 2011 for assistance.  Through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Wimpsett received financial and technical assistance to implement water quality and plant resource activities. He now has the nearly 100 acres divided into 19 paddocks. The goal is to achieve optimal environmental conditions by maintaining healthy forage that protects the soil surface from erosion and reduces risks to ground and surface water quality.

Stockpiling forage extends the grazing season by excluding livestock from specified areas during the growth season. Stockpiling also provides long term grass sustainability and improved forage health resulting in higher quality forage for livestock. – NRCS Animal Enhancement Activity description.

After experimenting with dividing the cattle into four herds that rotate on the 19 paddocks, Wimpsett decided to use the same philosophy as he did earlier when he doubled the total herd size. Now instead of dividing into four herds, he has the livestock divided into three herds.  “This is working much better, providing higher yielding forage and allowing me to stockpile for the winter season,” he said. 

Wimpsett rotates the herds every six weeks depending on the forage growth.  “My goal is to graze the cattle 300 days of the year,” he added.  Achieving the goal depends greatly on the weather but Wimpsett is doing all he can to keep his cattle grazing as long as possible. 

The feed he uses is a custom mix which included essential nutrients of Vitamin A, D, E and Zink.  Wimpsett strives for 40% legumes in his pastures and makes sure he has the right mix of ladino and red clover.  “The worst thing a cattle farmer can do to his pasture is put down nitrogen. This just gives the grass a boost and shades out the clover that provides cattle with vital nutrients,” he said.

Rotational grazing is different for every farm, depending on the land and the needs of the livestock. There is not one formula that works for every operation, but once an optimal rotation is reached, rotational grazing provides higher quality and better yielding forage which leads to more productive livestock.

To talk to a NRCS professional about your grazing operation, visit http://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app to find an office near you.