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Rotational grazing for beginners

I’ve recently had a few newer producers attend my seminars and schools who reminded me that there is still a large part of the farming population who consider rotational grazing to be a completely foreign notion. Not necessarily because they disagree with it, but just simply because they’ve rarely heard about it; and definitely have never been advised on how to put it into action on their own farms or acreages.

The reasons to begin rotational grazing are numerous. I always have an easy time selling the idea of bale grazing to producers, as it is a very efficient and easy production practice. It saves you time and money. The increased fertility on bale-grazed sites is often, I think, just considered a bonus. Rotational grazing on the other hand is a little bit of a harder sell as it costs producers both time and money. However, in the long run it can end up saving producers both.

Do you want your land to have better quality forages? Would you like to save money by not needing to fertilize or spray your land? Do you want your kids to inherit fertile and healthy land? If so, then rotational grazing is definitely for you. The little bit of time and expense that you’ll put into getting started will save you a lot in the future. It is a long-term investment.

With those thoughts in mind, can you afford not to rotationally graze?

I’ll run through the basics on how to set up a simple rotation on your farm, but keep in mind no one magazine article can replace attending schools, conferences and seminars to further your learning. There are also many excellent books out there. That’s how I learned most of the practices I now have in place on my grazing operation, and I still try to attend conferences and seminars when other speakers are in my area.

I believe that the very first thing any farmer starting off rotational grazing needs to learn is how to manage the grazing concepts. Without these you will never quite know how to put rotational grazing into effective practice in your environment. To make your operation a success, keep in mind the four grazing concepts while planning your grazing cell. They are easily remembered as GRAS (just pretend that we farmers never learned how to spell grass!); Graze period, Rest period, Animal impact and Stock density.

Graze period is a very important concept that most conventional farmers bypass when considering how to graze their land. This is strictly a measurement of time. You want to make sure your animals are off a paddock before they have a chance to take a second bite of the same plant. This depends on your season and your environment.

Rest period works in direct relation to graze period. This is how long you allow a piece of land to rest in between graze periods. Depending on your environment, this can be anywhere between 30 to 365 days. You want to make sure that by the time your animals are back on a paddock, the plants are in late stage two of production and have transferred energy to their roots.

The next grazing concept is Animal impact. This refers to how much soil stimulation is going on from animals walking on and through the paddock. Animal impact can either be positive or negative and works directly with the next concept — stock density.

Stock density is strictly a matter of how tightly grouped the animals are in a paddock. It is often confused with stocking rate, which is how many animals you have in a series of paddocks (a cell) for an entire season.

Using these concepts, you can now go into designing a grazing cell for your business.

In my area, I recommend having no fewer than 16 paddocks, as this is the minimum that I’ve found in my area for adequately managing the grazing concepts. In drier areas you may need up to 100 paddocks.

Everything depends on your environment, but the concepts remain the same. You will want to separate out forage types and any major riparian areas. When planning a grazing cell, you will also want to plan for easy animal movement. Keeping it as easy and simple as possible will save you money and headaches in the future.

The next step to rotational grazing is to start planting fence posts. There are many different types of fencing options available. You might want to use one wire temporary electric cross fencing at first, as you may want to adjust things as you start putting rotational grazing into practice. If your animals have never seen an electric fence before, it’s a good idea to train them on it in a secure pen with a very hot fence before putting them into their first paddock.

A trick that I use for training animals to electric fence is to tie pop cans to spots along the electric fence using metal wire. When the animals are put into this training pen their curiosity will lead them to sniff the electrified cans. They will learn quite quickly to stay away from fences.

You will also want to put in a watering system.

I know that a lot of producers allow their cattle to drink straight out of a dugout, but in a rotational system this cost is usually quite minimal in the long run. It saves a lot of labour down the road. There are many types of watering systems out there. I recommend doing your research before putting any one into practice.

Last you will be putting your animals into your new system. If you follow the grazing concepts you will see your land perk right up in the years to come. You will see a decrease in the amount of weeds in your pastures and enjoy the fact that you no longer have to actively fertilize your land. Your cows and the bugs that you will start to see in the soil will be doing all of the work for you.

Keep in mind that this is just a quick overview of rotational grazing. As you look further into the world of sustainable management, you will quickly learn what I am still learning. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. If you’re eager to learn, your management practices and land will profit from it.

Best wishes and God Bless!

Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta., www.greenerpasturesranching.com, 780-307-6500, email, or find them on Facebook.

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Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta., www.greenerpasturesranching.com, or call 780-307-6500.

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