There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to grazing management: continuous grazing and rotational grazing. While there are some variations among these methods, this article will deal with basic principles of these two approaches. It is obvious that either approach works, as there are numerous folks throughout the country making a living with different grazing management practices. With either system, the forage must meet the nutritional demands of the livestock.
Either way, the stocking rate must be right. If it is, then the method of grazing becomes the fine-tuning of the system. It's like finding that AM radio station and then fine tuning it so you can hear the ball game. While you can "hear the ball game" with both methods, rotational grazing will let you hear it in stereo on the FM band.
With both methods you manage your soils, fence, fertility, finances, labor, etc. So why stop there? With continuous grazing your cattle are the grazing managers instead of you. Limitations such as grazing distribution, spot grazing, weed management, pasture utilization, and others become apparent with continuous grazing. These problems can be limited and overcome with a good rotational grazing approach.
In general, forages have three phases of maturity (see chart). At green up (or regrowth after grazing), forages are in phase I. At this stage the plants are relatively high in protein and digestibility, and are very palatable to livestock. They are also immature and low in total production. In this stage the root system is still developing or recovering.
In phase II, the forage has increased production through tillering, and while the quality has dropped some due to maturity and stem elongation, the combination of quality and quantity is optimum for grazing, and the root system is normally "replenished". For those of you that make hay, this stage would be the same as right at or just before the grass is in the "boot stage". Phase III is characterized by higher quantity, lower digestibility mature forage with lots of stems and seedheads.
With rotational grazing, plants are allowed to recover from grazing and can be managed to be in, or close to, phase II when you turn your livestock in to a new pasture. Stock density, the number of animals (or liveweight) per pasture at a given time, can then be adjusted to allow you to get more of the grass that is grown into your livestock.
With continuous grazing, spot grazing is more apparent, which lengthens the recovery period of the forage. Many times the plant has no chance to recover, as it remains in phase I due to re-grazing by livestock. This weakens the plant, which can reduce total pasture production, and can result in an increase in weeds in the pasture.
There are products on the market today such as high tensile and polywire electric fence, and portable watering systems, that can make it economical to move from a continuous grazing approach to a rotational grazing system. Many people already have a pasture layout that will work, but they have cattle in each pasture.
Practical experience and research has shown that you can get 20-25% better utilization of your pastures with rotational grazing, provided the stocking rate is correct. This translates into an increase in corresponding stock performance.
This is just a broad look at rotational grazing, and there are too many concepts and benefits for this space. If you have been waiting for a good reason to try rotational grazing, there is no better time than next spring.
Incorporating rest periods into your pasture management can speed up the recovery of the grasses in the pasture after insect damage, dry weather, and heavy grazing this past year. If you want to get more out of your grass, think about trying rotational grazing. Get in the ball game.