Being a farmer is more than a day job, it's a lifestyle. Early to bed and early to rise, few farmers have the luxury of getting away from the farm for much needed rest and relaxation. Just like farmers, pastures also require rest from the stresses of daily farming life.

What is Rotational Grazing?

Simply put, rotational grazing is moving livestock to different sections of the pasture every set number of days in order to maintain healthy, nutritious forages. Large pastures are sectioned off into smaller parcels using either permanent or temporary fencing to allow the manager to effectively control grazing.

Why is it important?

Grass and clover plants become “stressed” from grazing and need sufficient time to grow back once grazing has occurred. Without a break from the stresses, forages can lose the ability to reestablish new growth, as the ability to utilize photosynthesis is minimized when grasses get below a certain length.

When livestock are allowed to continuously graze a pasture, they’ll eat the most savory grasses first, leaving some parts of the pasture overgrazed while other less palatable areas lie under grazed. Horses, especially, are notorious for “spot grazing,” where they’ll graze on small, choice areas while surrounding areas remain untouched. Animals will keep going back to the more palatable sections and graze without giving the plants optimal time to develop strong roots and recover if rotational grazing is not practiced. Eventually these plants will die and pesky weeds will rear their ugly heads and begin to take over the pasture.

Planning to Rotate

If you have a large farm, one of the best ways to develop your rotational grazing program is through the use of an aerial photograph of your pastures.  Southern States Cooperative has an imagery program that can take images or your farm by satellite or by airplane that will allow you to develop a plan for setting up rotational grazing sections on your pastures. Once you have the aerial photo in hand, you can divide your pastures into smaller fields and rotate livestock in when forage is around six inches high, and rotate them out as grass plants begin to approach the two-to-three inch threshold. This also promotes forage growth and can even break the life cycle of pesky parasites. When deciding how to structure your pastures, keep in mind that square pastures allow for the most even grazing. Pastures should be large enough for your desired stocking rate and ensure there is adequate shade in each area.

From there, you can begin to subdivide by using either permanent or temporary fencing. Typically, portable electric fence tape is used to subdivide pastures, while permanent fencing makes up perimeter fencing. Portable fencing allows you to be flexible in your program. If you see a certain pasture design or setup isn't working, the fencing can be easily moved.

Rules of Thumb

·         Grass should be six-to-eight inches tall prior to grazing. If livestock are allowed to graze too early, plants may die as immature root systems cannot handle the stresses of grazing and the weight of hooves.

·         Eat half, leave half. Once your animals eat half of the grass in the pasture, it's time to move them to the next available pasture that is ready for grazing. Try not to allow animals to graze the pastures below three inches.

·         Rely on plants rather than calendars. Recovery time for pastures is generally anywhere from 10 to 60 days depending on the season. Evaluate the plant growth and then decide whether or not the pasture has had ample time to rest and regrow prior to grazing again.

By implementing a rotational grazing program, you can help ensure your livestock consumes nutritious and palatable grass with each mouthful they take. Being proactive and efficient in your pasture management practices is the key to maintaining quality pasture. Good management practices—in all areas of your operation—will ultimately lead to success and increased profitability. Speak to your local Southern States representative about creating an effective plan for managing pasture around your farm.

Southern States Cooperative has grown to become one of the nation’s largest farm supply companies. With over 1,200 retail outlets spread across 23 states, they provide a wide range of farm and home supplies, including livestock feed, fertilizer, seed, animal health supplies and petroleum products. Farmer-owned since 1923, the Virginia-based cooperative has more than 200,000 farmer-members.

For more information, visit www.southernstates.com.