Six cell design strategies for pasture cattle

For years, I have taken as many schools and seminars as I could, in a quest to improve my business. One thing that I have seen throughout my education is that pasture cell design is never explained well, if it is even discussed at all. The “why” on rotational grazing is always discussed, but the “how” is usually not very clear. The difficulty when subdividing up a pasture is to make sure that each paddock has access to water and that the animal movement is feasible. Because I had never seen a cell design workshop before, I created one. I have put together five different types of cell design strategies that will work with the grazing concepts to help improve your land.

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What’s right depends on many factors. Each cell design has different advantages and disadvantages. In order to look at each type we will need to compare them with the equal measurements. Each picture in the diagram (at top of page) will use the same piece of land with no physical restraints. Each pasture will be 160 acres with 16 paddocks which will make each paddock 10 acres in size.

1. The alley way system is quite common and is relatively inexpensive to set up. In the diagram, I describe two different alley systems. The Two Alley Ways system will need four miles of cross-fencing to build the 16 paddocks. The One Alley Way design shown uses 4.4 miles of cross-fencing. Depending on how intensely you manage the long skinny paddocks of the One Alley Way system will usually become overutilized closest to the water and underutilized at the far end.

The more square-shaped paddocks of the Two Alley Ways system will generally be grazed more evenly. One of the downsides to the alley system is the excess manure and urine that ends up in the alleyway.

The nutrients end up being recycled in an undesirable area. Both of these systems have low setup and low labour costs. They also come with the benefit of flexibility of movement. It is easy to move the herd around in the rotation, or to manage the animals individually. If you need to treat for a pink eye or a foot rot, it is easy to bring an animal in through the alley to a handling facility. I have set up an artificial insemination program on pasture with only one unit of labour because of the convenience of the alley system. Another benefit to the One Alley Way system is that the long rectangle makes a great bale-grazing paddock if you ever have the opportunity.

2. I have seen quite a few “Water Truck Method” systems over the years that have been quite successful. This type of cell system has less cross-fencing with only three miles of fence. The utilization is better again with the square paddocks but limits animal movement. You have to plan your rotation a little better so you do not graze yourself into a corner. Manure distribution is better as you have no constant alley or watering site that can be overused. The bonus with this system is that you can increase the animal impact in an area by positioning your water truck on a specific spot. The downside is the increased capital and labour costs.

3. A Cell Centre is quite common. It is also known as the wagon wheel or pie system. This design has the most cross-fencing at 4.8 miles. In this scenario, the paddocks end up being long and narrow, which again tends to cause uneven utilization. From an aerial photo you would see overutilization at the hub, or centre of the wheel. Manure distribution is variable, depending on the intensity of your grazing plan. The benefit to this system is that it is cheap to set up and to operate. Labour costs are low. Flexibility of movement is pretty good with this system as all of the paddocks are connected at the watering area. Each paddock funnels nicely to the middle so bringing in an animal to treat or to AI is also relatively easy.

4. The Pipeline Method is popular on owned land. The installation of a more permanent system like this is not so desirable on rented land. The difference in this system is we now take the water to where we want it, as opposed to allowing animals to walk to it. It keeps the fencing cost low with only three miles of cross-fence. The square paddocks allow for more even utilization of the forage and provide good manure distribution. In some cases, where there is no existing water pressure system, it can be more costly to put in. Once in place it requires little labour. If you look closely at the pipeline system, it is actually four small cell centres.

5. The fifth cell design in my workshop is the Portable Strip Grazing method. This one is more difficult to put into a mould as it is quite variable with management. In the diagram I show it a couple of ways. There are three permanent fences, which create four long rectangles across the pasture. This only requires 1-1/2 miles of permanent fencing. On the left half of the picture, it shows a pipeline down the centre that allows for multiple watering points. You then manage the rotations using two or three portable fences giving you flexibility on the size of each paddock. The water trough moves along with the cattle. On the right half, there is no pipeline. We graze down the rectangles by removing fences, allowing access to more grass each time.

In this scenario, we are allowing the animals to walk through the first paddocks to get to the other ones. We need to be careful to still maintain our desired graze period through each rectangle. If the animals are allowed on a piece of land for too long, they will regraze the first paddocks and cause overgrazing. The far right shows very high stock density or mob grazing. Like I said, this one is a little harder to put into words, but it can give you more flexibility in your management. There is however, more labour involved. As for manure distribution and utilization, this is highly variable depending on management. Animal movement is limited and you need to plan your rotation well in advance.

Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta., Call 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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