If you’re just starting out or have been rotationally grazing for a while, one of the main challenges you face during the grazing season is when to move the livestock.
I have to make the same decisions with my herds. Each year is different and my grazing has to adjust with it. No matter how much you plan, something always changes.
There are many different factors that affect when I move my cattle. Early in the year I make a grazing plan. I don’t think I have ever stuck exactly to my grazing plan, but I need to make sure I stick as close as possible to my desired rest period.
The rest period may be different for you than it is for me, but we need to try our best to achieve our target. This means that if the season changes or our weather is a bit different than what we expect, we still move the cattle to give the plants an adequate rest between grazings.
This might mean we must move the livestock to a new paddock before the grass has run out. At other times we might have to move them not because of conditions in the paddock they are currently on, but so the paddock they will be on a month from now does not become too mature.
So rest period is important.
But we also want to prevent overgrazing on a paddock by making sure our graze period is not too long. There may be a lot of grass left in your current paddock because you have had more growth than normal so you want to knock it down.
Overgrazing is a measurement of time. If your animals are still out grazing on the same paddock when the first plants they grazed start to regrow, you are overgrazing. You need to move them off before the plants have a chance to put up a new leaf. You don’t want to allow the “second bite” of the same plant before it has had a chance to rebuild its energy reserves.
So graze period is another important factor in the decision to move.
There is another thing that might help me decide its time to move my herd — animal performance.
If my graze period and rest period are both in check, I might decide to move for the sake of the livestock. A lot of people look at a paddock and decide “How much grass is left.” I like to see “How much gain is left.”
When you first put the animals into a paddock the plants are full and hopefully in a nice stage-two productive state. The grasses have full nutritious leaves and the legumes are standing proud. After a day or two of grazing, the paddock looks quite different. Some plants are eaten, some trampled, but there still may be a lot of material left out there to graze.
Look at the individual plants and decide how much gain is left. Usually the top portion of the plant is more nutritious. It will have the newer leaves, and less stem. The bottom portion is more stem and older leaves. For example, if we have a four-day graze period, there is not as much gain in the last day of grazing as there was in the first. Day one and two produce great gains, day three we break-even and day four we don’t gain as there is a much lower quality of feed available.
I might decide to move on day three to keep up animal performance.
So animal performance is important to me when making the decision of when to move.
Building up water-holding capacity might be another priority for you for a particular paddock. This means you will want to make sure you leave lots of residue to build up the thatch layer. Leaving excess plant material behind will cover the soil and help reduce runoff and evaporation.
The most important nutrient to forage growth by far is water. Building up the soil’s organic matter increases its ability to hold and store water. Thus water-holding capacity is another factor in deciding when to move.
Finally, I have to consider my landowners.
I graze on a lot of rented land owned by 20 different people, each with different priorities for their land. Some want me to graze harder, some want me to graze lighter, some want me to graze sooner and some want me to graze longer. Almost every one of them will offer up advice on how I should graze and that is OK. However, sometimes I need to look at the bigger picture as their land is only one piece of the whole grazing cell. That being said, I try to accommodate their wishes as best as I can without sacrificing too much of my grazing plan.
It does not matter how good of a grazer I am if I don’t have the land to graze.
Here’s just one example. I graze four quarters of land that is part of a large grazing cell but is also a motorsport park laced with a bunch of dirt bike trails throughout.
My job here is fire control. I am allowed to rent this land at a reasonable rate because I have a large herd that can knock down the forage twice a year in a short amount of time. They are busy on weekends and need to use certain parts of the land at different times of the year for special events.
I have to adjust my grazing plan to work around their events and weekends. We will close down a certain portion of the track when the cattle arrive, knock the forage down and then move on to a different portion of the track.
Sometimes I will graze an area in a different order or at a different time or faster or slower to accommodate a track event. It is all part of the management that goes into my decision on when to move.
As you can see, the decision to move is rarely black and white. There is no recipe I can give you to follow in making your grazing plan. Just remember that nature will forgive one grazing mistake, but it won’t forgive the same mistakes being made over and over again.