“You have to first take care of your land before it can take care of you.”
This is a common mantra among forage gurus and environmental stewards. It is preached in grazing seminars, cattle meetings and coffee shop ramblings across the country. But sometimes this presents itself as a challenge for cattle producers, especially when Mother Nature deals tough cards of drought and unfavorable growing conditions. One way cattle producers can take care of their land while maximizing forage potential is through rotational grazing.
Rotate, let it grow, rotate, let it grow…
“First thing that needs to be understood is that there is no magic way to do rotational grazing,” says Gary Bates, director of the University of Tennessee Beef and Forage Center. “The whole point of this system is to better utilize forage so spring isn’t spent undergrazing and all summer overgrazing.”
The process of sectioning off larger pieces of land into smaller paddocks and following a rotational-grazing pattern eases pressure to promote new forage growth.
“Forage production is the process of plants capturing sunlight through their leaves to convert into chemical energy for growth,” he explains. “Rotational grazing allows plants to not be grazed too short, so they maintain more leafage and can grow faster.”
According to Bates, there are multiple reasons producers can benefit from a rotational-grazing system, the top two being better utilization of forage and healthier stands of grass. Research shows if an operation utilizes a rotational-grazing program instead of a continuously grazing program, ground will be able to carry more cattle or harvest more hay, Bates says. Intensity and forage ability will be the deciding factors on how often a producer needs to rotate.
“Determining when it’s time to move cattle on and off grass will totally depend on the type of forage species that is available to the producer,” he says. “For example, if the forage base is tall fescue, start grazing it when it is 8 to 10 inches tall and graze it down to around 3 inches.”
One thing producers need to be prepared for is a slowing in growing season. For example, if it takes a paddock 20 days to regrow from 3 inches to 10 inches in the spring, that time period could be significantly increased during the dog days of summer when moisture is less frequent and temperatures are higher. If the forage supply is struggling to keep up with the herd’s needs, supplementation of hay or feed will be necessary. A preventative option to increase forage production is diversifying plant species.
“What producers may find out is that instead of having all tall fescue, they may take a few of their paddocks and plant them to warm-season grass like bermudagrass or sorghum-sudangrass,” Bates explains. “That way when the fescue isn’t growing as well, there are other forages in production that are more adaptable to the summertime.”