Have you herd? You have to move it

Grazing with Steve Kenyon

herd |

noun – a large group of animals that live, feed, or migrate together or are kept together
verb – (with reference to a large group of people or animals) move in a particular direction


When you read the above definitions, you may think of a herd of livestock grazing out on a hillside. It is a romantic notion of wide-open spaces and beautiful countryside. We have all seen the movies, but in both these definitions the key term is “moving.”

You have to move them.

Did you know that Joseph Glidden’s invention of barbed wire was actually a detriment to our industry?  Prior to barbed wire, we managed our animals by herding. We had cowboys out on the range keeping the animals together and moving them to new grass every day. Prior to that, nature did the same thing by using predators to keep the herd together and moving. We took over, brought in barbed wire, put up perimeter fences and allowed the animals to spread out and continuously overgraze the land. We stopped moving the herd. Curses to you Joseph Glidden!

At Greener Pastures we try to mimic what nature did. However, in our modern times, it is costly to hire those cowboys to do the herding so instead, we use electric fencing to manage the herd in an intensive cell grazing system.

I have worked with a few ranches where herding is still the most economical way to manage, but on most operations, electric fencing is our best option.

The idea behind our grazing management is to manage for the four grazing concepts: graze period, rest period, stock density and animal impact and we need to be able to herd the animals around on our pastures to manage these concepts.

Our graze period needs to be short enough to stop the “second bite.” The animals need to be removed from the paddock before the plants are able to put up new leaf after the first bite.

Depending on your environment, this second bite could occur after only a few days in the fast growing season. If the plants are using stored energy to put up that new leaf, the energy reserves will be empty when the second bite occurs and the plant will then be set back.

Rest period also has to be managed to prevent the second bite. Adequate rest has to be given to ensure the energy reserves have been replenished before the plants are grazed for a second time. Again, depending on your environment and season, this could be anywhere from about 25 to 365 days. We all face different conditions on our ranches but we still need to make sure the rest period allows for the energy stores to be replenished.

Stock density is the number of animal units on a piece of land at a specific point in time. It is measured in animal days per acre. This is not to be confused with stocking rate, which is the number of animals you have on a pasture for the entire season. There are two benefits to a higher stock density: improved plant utilization and better manure distribution.

With good plant utilization, every plant is either bitten or stepped on, creating an even playing field for every plant when it comes time to regrow. With better manure distribution you have better nutrient recycling.

Animal impact is the physical stimulation of the land caused by the animal’s hooves. It can improve new seedling development, nutrient recycling and aid in the breaking up of capped soil.

Positive animal impact also works a lot of litter into the ground. Many people see this as a waste of good grass but it can be surprising what this “waste” can do to improve the water holding capacity and the fertility of the land.

I am feeding three things when I graze the livestock: the land and the soil organisms. So this “waste” is not really waste.

These four grazing concepts explain why we move our herds, but not how we do it. That depends on your environment.

Under normal conditions I would not graze the same here in Alberta as I would in Texas or Australia or Brazil.

In every environment, however, the goal is to avoid overgrazing, which is really only a measurement of time. No matter how many head, or how many acres we manage, we have to time our grazing to what the environment allows. We never want to graze a plant when it is weak; it’s as simple as that.

And we manage the same, even in the dormant season. During the winter here in Alberta we may not be as concerned about hurting the energy stores of plants as they are dormant, but we still use electric fencing to keep the herd moving the herd as one. With any of our winter grazing practices, (bale grazing, swath grazing, residue grazing), we still want to plan for a good stock density and manage the manure to improve the fertility of the land.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that if you manage a herd, you should be herding.

Herding — Definition: the act of bringing individual animals together into a group (herd), maintaining the group, and moving the group from place to place.

Intensive cell grazing is not a new idea. It’s actually a very old method of management that most of our industry has forgotten about. It’s good for the land, the environment and your bottom line; in other words, a win/win/win. Happy herding!

This article was originally published on AGCanada.com.

About the author

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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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