Pasture Grazing Management Methods
Updated: May 12, 2020
Bottom Line Up Front: Healthy pastures are the foundation of regenerative agriculture and lead to fewer operational inputs, healthier livestock, and improved water usage. There are various methods used for managing pastures, and in general those that employ frequent rotation of animals onto fresh pasture are seen as the most effective.
We all want our livestock to be healthy and get the most nutrition possible from our pastures. And for the most part producers agree that rotating animals between pastures is the best way to do that. Animals are restricted from an area they previously grazed, and that gives that pasture an opportunity to recover and grow new forage, which will provide increased nutrition to the grazing animals when they are allowed to return. If you are new to raising livestock, you need an understanding of the various methods used for managing pasture grazing. Here are the common methods for you to consider using on your farm along with some pros and cons for each.
This is the do-nothing approach. You have one large paddock or pasture, and your livestock are allowed to continuously graze throughout the whole area. The pro to continuous grazing is that it requires little to no time on your part as the producer.
The cons on the other hand are numerous. Livestock will eat the best forage available. In a situation where they are allowed to graze it as they see fit, they will keep eating the same plant over and over as it tries to grow back. Over a short amount of time, the plant is unable to create enough energy to stay alive since the animals keep eating the leaves, and it will eventually die. This happens throughout a continuously grazed pasture, and eventually less desirable plant species will supplant the preferred ones. Or all of the area is grazed to the point that nothing is growing and you end up with bare ground, and the leads to a host of other problems such as erosion, the inability of the soil to retain moisture, and increased risk of disease.
Another major issue with continuous grazing is the constant exposure of the animals to parasites found in fecal waste. Many parasites that are major issues to our livestock are passed to others through manure. Parasite eggs leave the body in fecal waste and they incubate in the surrounding ground and forage waiting for a host to consume them. When an animal is in the same place where it and its fellow beasts are defecating, then their exposure to parasites is increased.
If you are limited to continuous grazing, there are some ways to help mitigate these problems. First, do not overstock, and really you may just plan to under-stock until you are confident in the ability of the pasture to hold up to the animal pressure.
Second, move the animals' water source and feed sources. If they feed and water in the same spots day after day you will see that ground is barren and covered with a high amount of animal waste due to the intense livestock traffic. By moving the feed and water sources you are intentionally spreading the pressure and animal waste around.
Third, if you feed hay, then also feed it in different spots each time you put it out. Consider unrolling it as opposed to placing a hay ring around it. Some will argue that results in wasted hay, but producers practicing regenerative farming see advantages to rolling it out. This spreads out the animal traffic thus reducing the pressure on one spot of ground, and it spreads out the manure and urine. Also, the hay that some consider as wasted is really acting as a mulch that protects bare ground, helps hold in moisture in the soil below, and is depositing seeds that came in with the hay.
A switchback system is simply using two separate paddocks and moving the animals from one to the other. While one paddock is grazed, the other is recovering and growing back forage. After a certain amount of time, you switch the animals back again.
There are a few pros to this. It's easy to do, normally just open a gate and let the animals come through. Also, this gives you an effective way to allow pasture land to recover, and to some degree it reduces animals' exposure to parasites.
The cons are that while it's better than continuous grazing, you still have animals on one piece of ground for longer that most producers would prefer. You can employ the techniques I discuss in continuous grazing above to encourage livestock to spread their pressure about in the paddocks: move water & feed sources, watch your stocking rate, and spread hay around.
A multi-pasture system utilizes 3 or more pastures allowing increased recovery time between grazing. The only difference between this and a switchback system is you are using more than 2 pastures. The pros are the same with you seeing even more recovery between grazing and further reducing exposure to parasites.
The cons are reducing as the number of pastures or paddocks increase. A potential con is if you don't already have a setup in place for multi-pasture grazing then you will have to invest in interior cross fencing. Also, with permanent fences normally associated with switchback and multi-pasture systems you are in a fixed system where the only flexibility you have is to move the animals from one permanent pasture to another. The alternative to this is temporary electric fencing which we'll discuss below.
In strip grazing you allow your herd access to one piece of land to graze for a short amount of time, usually just one to a few days in length. The land is typically sectioned off in shapes that resemble strips (it can be whatever shape you need), and once the grazing in one strip is complete the animals are moved to a subsequent strip of land. The previously grazed land has ample time to recover, typically several weeks to several months depending on your management methods.
Since the animals are moved frequently, the use of permanent fences is not practical, so temporary electric fencing is normally used to section off the land to be grazed. A single line of electric polywire can contain cattle, and smaller animals such as goats or sheep can be trained to respect two lines of this wire. With proper electric fencing infrastructure in place, moving the temporary wire can usually be done in a short amount of time thus adding very little workload to a producer's daily tasks.
The pros of strip grazing is your animals will get the access to fully recovered pastures on a frequent basis, and they will have very little exposure to parasites. Regenerative agriculture ranchers normally use some form of strip grazing and often report additional benefits such as healthier soils, improved grasses, and more effective rain water retention.
The cons of strip grazing is it requires frequent engagement with your herd, although that's not really a bad thing. I stop short of saying it's more labor intensive. While it technically takes more time than opening a gate and moving your herd from one pasture to another every couple of months, it is by no means as big of a drain on your time as some naysayers would have you believe. After some experience with strip grazing, you can move a large herd of cows in 15 minutes or less.
Other challenges with strip grazing include learning to operate and manage an electric fence system if you haven't done that before. Also, you must develop an ability to assess forage needs and availability ahead of the herd moves.
Hub and Wheel System
Sometimes called the wagon wheel or hub and spoke system, the hub and wheel design has multiple paddocks that are connected at a central point: the hub. The hub may be a permanent water source or corral area. Animals can be moved from one paddock to another by moving them through the hub and out into a new paddock. This design may be achieved with permanent fence or temporary electric fence.
The pros to this system is that it, like other systems described here, promotes multi-pasture rotational grazing with increased recovery time between grazing.
The con to this system is that the central hub is where the herd will tend to spend the most time, and the area around it is often overgrazed. Likewise, the areas farthest from the hub tend to be undergrazed. Some of this can be overcome by moving feed or mineral farther away from the hub so as to encourage your animals to venture to the outer edges of the paddock.
Our first foray into more thoughtful grazing was a switchback/hub and wheel design. We had two pastures that were joined by a corral where the animals got feed and water. You can see the hub of our system below, and some of the drawbacks to this kind of system are apparent from this photo. The area into and out of the corral are barren due to animal traffic. There is increased amount of manure here. Likewise you can see animal trails leading out from the corral.
There are several other grazing systems to be aware of. They are variations on the way the systems previously described are managed.
Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP): Typically you see strip grazing methods used to implement AMP. In AMP you implement intensive grazing on a small piece of land for a short period of time before the herd is moved on to the next available piece of land. By definition AMP moves are not scheduled and not set to defined areas. The animals are moved in response to how the land is performing. Other systems that are very similar (and to be honest I can't really point out significant differences between them and AMP) include: High Intensity Low Frequency (HILF) grazing, Short Duration Grazing (SDG), and Controlled Rotational Grazing (CRG).
Multi-species Rotational Grazing: This method is used in any of the multi-paddock/pasture systems described in this article. Rotating different species of livestock through paddocks has benefits such as different species consuming different plants from one another. Also you introduce dead-end parasite hosting where one species ingests parasites that would be harmful to another species of livestock. For example, cattle consuming the barber pole worm, which is problematic for goats and sheep. Ideally you keep the species several weeks apart in a rotation so that plants have a chance to adequately recover between grazing.
Merrill 4-Pasture / Deferred Grazing: The Merrill 4-Pasture design is a system of deferred grazing. By definition the Merrill 4-Pasture approach splits your herd into 3 smaller herds and grazes them across 4 pastures. One pasture is in rest and recovery while the other three are grazed. Every four months a herd is moved to the rested pasture and the pasture that has been grazed the longest goes into a four month period of rest. In other words a pasture is grazed continuously for 12 months, then rested - or deferred - for four months. 100% of the herd grazes 75% of the available pastures.
Since the Merrill 4-Pasture approach is a rigid system, it tends to work better with larger acreage operations. You can still implement a deferred grazing system to your own farm without following a predefined approach. Fence off an area - ideally with temporary electric wire - and do not allow your herd access to that area while giving them access to the rest of your pastures. After you feel the deferred area is healthy enough, allow the animals access to it, and in turn identify another area to fence off for deferred grazing at a later time. Ideally this would be the weakest part of your pasture that is in greatest need of recovery.
Texas Block: In a Texas block paddock system, there are multiple paddocks or pastures with a water source available in each. The advantage to this is you don't have to put in the work of moving water troughs and hoses from paddock to paddock. The drawback is the expense of installing multiple watering systems.
New Zealand Block: There are multiple paddocks with one water source, and in a New Zealand block design there is a designated lane that connects the paddocks to the water source. The lane is not used for grazing and is essentially a sacrificed piece of land, but in turn the paddocks don't require complex water systems and do not suffer from heavy foot traffic around a central watering point.
Deciding on a Method.
How you decide what method to implement will depend on your goals and available funds for investing in infrastructure. You may want to do multi-paddock system with water troughs in each paddock, but the expense of interior cross-fencing and pumping water across the pasture may be prohibitive. Each of the main methods described here expand on another system, so starting off with a basic approach is fine. You can assess if it is meeting your goals, and if not you can modify it by adding cross-fencing or temporary electric fencing.
So what will you use? Let us know your thoughts on these systems and any others you are familiar with.
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