When grazing beef cattle or other ruminants in the Southeast USA or other humid temperate regions around the world, a well-designed grazing system is key to maximizing returns and protecting the land from degradation due to overgrazing. If a forage never has a chance to “rest” than it will not develop a good carbohydrate store in the roots and potentially could be grazed out of the system. For this reason a rotational grazing system can and should be implemented to improve the land and potentially the quality of the beef product.
The benefits of rotationally grazing cattle, will generally, far outweigh the negatives. The main negatives to a system of this nature are extra management time and initial set up costs. Labor costs must be factored into the equation in order to see if it will pay off; however, a well-designed system initially will prevent extra management time and headache down the road. With a little bit of time at the drawing board and some savvy fencing and water supply shopping, input cost and time can be decreased to a range where the positive aspects of this system will almost guarantee both ecological and economic profit. Many farmer’s wouldn’t think twice about bringing their animal hay or feed on a daily basis, but when the idea of moving the animals once a day comes up, they all seem to get scared.
A continues grazing system has been shown to have about 30% efficiency, whereas, a moderate rotational grazing system (with 6-8 paddocks), improves efficiency by 40% for a total of 70% efficiency. This will generally enable a farmer to have an increased stocking density without decreasing animal performance. A University of Missouri study on management intensive grazing showed that it would only take 2 years to get 1 pile of manure/ 1 sq. ft. of ground. As opposed to 27 years for a continuous grazing system. There are a number of studies that will indicate the benefits of manure on soil quality and how depositing them more efficiently in all locations can lead to potentially higher levels of soil organic matter. As the level of soil organic matter increases (not the recently dead, but the very dead, the humus), the cation exchange capacity increases, leading to a higher level of surface area for binding macro and micro-nutrients. In climates like this, there are generally high levels of Aluminum permanently bound to the clay colloid causing toxicity problems, which leads to an acidic pH. It is common knowledge that an acidic pH will lead to a cascade of other negative issues. With proper fertility management (i.e. liming) and good consistent manure deposition through rotational grazing the pH of the soil can potentially be raised into the 6’s, where most forages will perform best.
So what can a farmer do if there is no lime?
The best management practice, if lime is not available, is to eliminate or limit the use of high salt-index fertilizers and manage the land as sensitively as possible. This means high forage rest periods! These high rest times will also prevent the elimination of “grazing sensitive” plants such as red clover, orchard grass, and other native grasses; the increased rest time will enable them to remain in the system for more years. Many of the “grazing sensitive” forages have high levels of crude protein or carbohydrates and can help improve animal gains. Consistently moving animals will train them to be calmer around humans and more relaxed when being worked as well. The farmer can also improve his/her pasture management skills, as they are in the field more often, observing. Balancing pasture and forage management to the nutrient intake requirements of a growing ruminant has long been the biggest challenge to a producer. Time in the field, and I don’t mean “windshield” time, is key to success. So get out and walk, its good for you and for your land.
A final benefit of rotationally grazing beef cattle with well-behaved animals is the ability to diversify with different grazing methods. Beef animals in different phases of production have different TDN requirements, and being able to diversify forage options and grazing methods can improve the quality of your heard and the individual product you may be trying to rear, whether that be a stocker, a finished meat product, or a weaned calf. For instance, if you are finishing beef animals and only have a limited supply of high quality forage remaining, “limit-grazing” can be a method implemented to maximize what’s left of the pasture. An Oklahoma State study showed a significantly higher ADG when beeves were allowed to graze for only 4-8 hours per day in the finishing period. Another method that works well in a rotational grazing system is ultra-highs stocking densities. When forage has a chance to grow tall and become lignified, mature cows, in competition, will be forced to eat as much as they can and will “clean” a pasture of old forage that would normally be overlooked and ignored. What is trampled into the ground has the potential of improving soil quality by feeding soil microorganisms.
Though there are a few initial management hurdles, and start up costs. The long-term benefits of rotational grazing far out weigh a continuous grazing system and with careful planning a manageable system can be established almost anywhere. Improving gains and pasture quality through rotational grazing is the first step to becoming more economically viable and environmentally sustainable.