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Give Your Pastures Some Rest

Posted May 1, 2009

Precipitation drives pasture improvement, so if you improve the condition of your pastures and rangelands when it does rain, it will help you get through those times when it doesn't. One method of pasture improvement is to provide growing season rest.

Rotational grazing is a method to provide growing season rest. Put all your cattle in one pasture while you allow other pastures to rest and accumulate forage. How quickly you rotate through your pastures depends on the growth rate and type of grass. If your grass is in a rapid growth phase, then you would rotate rapidly with a goal to use each pasture once in a 30-day period. As the growth rate slows, so do your rotations. During a slow growth period for an introduced, sod-forming grass like bermudagrass, a common approach is to move through each pasture in a 60-day cycle. Native grasses will need a longer rest period during the slow growth phase. The more pastures you have, the less time you will spend in each, which subsequently allows you to rest each pasture more. (See table)

Key Points to Consider:

  1. If your stocking rate is too high, any grazing system is doomed to fail.
  2. Grazing rotations based on calendar dates are only guidelines. You need to be able to look at your pasture (grass) and determine when it is time to move. A minimum stubble height of 3 inches for an introduced, sod-forming grass like bermudagrass is a signal that it is time to move cattle. On native bunchgrasses, try to leave at least a 6-inch stubble height. The height of the grass when you leave the pasture is more important than the height of the grass when you came into the pasture. Leaving adequate stubble height ensures rapid regrowth when environmental conditions allow.
  3. Pasture improvement is realized by allowing forages to accumulate top growth, which helps them maintain a healthy root system. During periods when grasses are no longer growing (drought, winter), you have to "ration" grass that you have been able to stockpile through rotational grazing. Dormant season grazing cycles typically last about 90 days. Rest during a drought or winter (when warm-season plants are not actively growing) does not contribute to pasture improvement, but that doesn't mean that you throw open all the gates!
  4. Growing season rest is most important to native warm-season grasses (big bluestem, little bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, etc.). However, introduced, warm-season grasses (bermudagrass, plains bluestem, etc.) can also benefit from rotational grazing and the inherent rest this system provides. If you are unhappy with the condition of your native or introduced pastures, incorporate some rest into the growing season to allow the vigor of your grasses and, in turn, your pasture quality to improve.
  5. There are "agnostics" who will tell you that you aren't gaining anything in terms of livestock production or pasture improvement by rotational grazing. For every one of them, there are a hundred who are reaping the rewards. Your cattle will have to adjust to more frequent moves when you begin, but don't let them be your master! They will adjust, although it may take two or three years. The long-term benefits far outweigh the initial challenges.

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