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Designing a Productive Grazing System

Richard Bowling, Grazing SpecialistBy Richard Bowling
Grazing Specialist for NRCS in Kentucky

An added bonus to a rotational grazing system is an improvement to plant health and soil quality.  The desired plants stand longer and develop a strong root system.  The roots also increase pore space in the soil for better infiltration and water holding capacity.

Implementing a rotational grazing system will return good dividends to a grazing operation.  By dividing larger pastures and allowing an adequate rest period for the forages landowners gain a tonnage increase as well as an increase in grazing efficiency. Grazing efficiency in a continuously grazed pasture is 20-40%, but by implementing a rotational system where they are moved every four to seven days the efficiency increases to 50-55%.  A daily rotation will achieve 60-65% efficiency. An increased forage production and higher grazing efficiency equals a bigger return on investment.

Landowner Considerations Prior to Installation

Landowners should consider several factors like terrain, fence type, water availability, shade, labor, number of desired paddocks, etc. before implementing a rotational grazing system.  In order to develop an effective and productive grazing plan we must first examine the existing resources.  Each farming operations has different challenges to address but there are several things that will prove to be the backbone of a good system that is user friendly and successful. The foundation of most prescribed grazing systems is based on the availability of water and existing permanent fences.  These two factors generally dictate how individual paddocks are arranged as watering facility placement and division fences are totally reliant on them.

In many instances a landowner’s initial goal is to size and arrange their paddocks equally for a more uniform rotation, for example, once every five or seven days.  In theory this approach may be logical, but due to variances in forage availability throughout the grazing season, this approach is not desirable.  Forage growth is dependent upon many factors with temperature and rainfall often being the most prevalent. These factors vary not only from year to year but also throughout each grazing season. 

Soil type is also an important consideration in the planning of a rotational grazing system.  Just as forage species differ, soil types differ and can affect the overall grazing system.  The arrangement and sizes of paddocks should follow a thorough consideration of forage species and soil types.

Travel distance to water has an important effect on the utilization of forages within paddocks. Forage utilization is generally higher when livestock are traveling less than 800 feet between water sources.  In these instances, individual animals are more likely to visit watering facilities on their own versus in a group which means the forage will be grazed more evenly improving utilization percentages across the entire system.  Consideration should be given when determining watering facility placement to ensure that multiple paddocks can be supported by single watering facilities rather than multiple watering facilities to reduce installation and maintenance costs. 

Two watering facilities service 12 fields.The installation of a fenced watering facility hub armored with geo-textile and stone to prevent mud and erosion work extremely well in rotational grazing systems. Watering facility hubs can easily service four paddocks if gates are installed in each corner. In addition, four paddocks can then easily be divided into eight, 12 or 16 paddocks with the use of temporary electric fencing.

Watering Tank Selection

Watering tank selection is important especially with the frost free systems that are commonly utilized during winter months. Larger watering tanks are preferable particularly when placed directly in fence rows.  A common occurrence is to place a frost free four ball tank in a fence row so there are two balls in each field. Large open top implement tire or pre- cast concrete tanks also work well in this type application but care should be taken if the tank that is installed is to be utilized during winter months as they are subject to freezing. This is true even with frost free tanks; freezing can occur if inadequate amounts of water are not periodically circulated through the tank or if the heat well is not properly installed. It is crucial that manufacturer recommendations are followed during tank selection and installation to ensure that adequate livestock numbers are provided for frost free operation.  Keep in mind that a two-ball frost free tank will accommodate approximately 70-100 animal units.

Two ball watering system services two fields.The average cattle herd size in Kentucky is 29 according to the 2007 KY Ag Statistics. Four ball tanks will be too large to provide frost free water year round based on manufacturer’s recommendations. An easy solution to this problem is to use the two ball tanks in a watering facility hub or to position the tank in the fence row to allow access to both balls from either side.

Once the watering facility selection is made and the watering facility hub is operational, the livestock will have easier movement from paddock to paddock.  Rotations may simply be made by opening the gate in the hub as livestock come to water, allowing access to the next paddock. 

Fencing Options

Temporary electric fencing is a good tool that allows landowners to properly size fields for the desired number of grazing days during the slow growth summer. Also, temporary fence can be utilized to develop smaller paddocks during the fast growth periods which will allow for stockpiling or haying of the other paddocks.

Permanent fence layout requires that you make provisions to move the livestock easily from one set of paddocks to another.  The use of alley ways is a good way to do this in a manner that is easy to manage.  The alley way can be made with temporary or permanent fence.  It may need to be hard surfaced if it will be used to move hay through the system during the winter or if alleys are used by the livestock to access water.  Some systems will use an alley way at the end of the paddocks to transition livestock between paddocks as well as route them to a single water source. 

Light traffic may not warrant hard surfacing so a double alley could be considered. The double alley is simply two alley ways side by side that will provide a rest period to either alley when they show signs of forage base degradation causing trails which may lead to gully erosion.

When dividing the fields with a permanent fence, attention should be given to cattle creating a trail along the fence line.  Trails along slopes can often lead to excessive erosion so fencing across the slope, especially in a drainage way, is recommended.  Field shape may require that fences be constructed along drainage ways or wet areas. In these instances the fence should be constructed down slope for part of the length, then across the drain and continue for the remainder of the length on the other side.  This will reduce the erosion risk by altering the traffic pattern.

High tensile electric wire utilized for permanent division fences has many advantages. These advantages include less capitol expense, an electrified wire to connect to for temporary paddock sub divisions, and calves can creep graze ahead of the cows to get the optimum nutrition for growth.

Temporary electric fence is best for sub divisions of larger paddocks as it allows for adjustments in paddock size based on forage growth. In addition temporary electric fence can be installed quickly by using a fence reel with step in or push in posts and it allows for quick takedown for periodic clippings or hay removal.

For More Information

There are many avenues that can be considered during rotational grazing system development. Each farm will have site specific needs to address but if you use these basic principles you can be well on your way with productive system that is user friendly and easy to manage.

For more information, contact your local NRCS Service Center.