Like many things in the farming world, learning how to implement rotational grazing with your herd of cattle can be more than a little confusing. How often should I move them? The paddock should be how big? And exactly how much grass should I leave behind?
The questions go on and on. Knowing how important rotational grazing is to the regenerative agriculture movement, we took it upon ourselves to get help from the pros. We found a group of farmers that currently rotationally graze cattle and asked them the following question:
What is the best advice you have for someone just starting out with rotationally graze cattle?
Below you’ll find the wonderful responses we received from these experienced farmers.
Adam Stevens – Flying Carrot Farm
Operated by the Stevens family, Flying Carrot Farm serves Oregon up with a variety of tasty foods. From pastured eggs to beyond organic vegetables, their farm has it all.
There’s an enormous amount that could be said for sure. I think the best advice I had for those starting is don’t push too hard and be flexible. Don’t push the cows to get every last blade of grass and don’t push yourself too hard in trying to get it right the first time. It’s better to leave extra grass behind when you move than to take too much. Don’t expect too much of yourself. You will make mistakes, sometimes daily for months at a time. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Keep an open mind and look for the lessons to be learned, they are also almost daily. Stay flexible in your approach and with your fencing. Size and shape the paddocks to the season and available forage. Keep the fencing basic and multi purpose. All our posts and reels are the same size so that any of them can be used anywhere at anytime. We have very little in the way of permanent fencing and most of what we do have was only put up after several seasons of trial and error to determine where permanent fences make sense. You can go broke trying to run permanent fence all over with the idea of creating paddocks that stay in place. Some of our paddocks are as small as a 10th of an acre at certain times of year. Imagine the cost of trying to set up paddocks that size across a whole farm! So we use reels and posts that let us pick everything up and move it wherever we need to go.
Jon Nelson – JNelson Farms
Jon runs JNelson Farms alongside his wife, Tammy. Their 200 acres of pasture support a herd of grass-fed cattle are raised on only grass.
My advice to someone interested in rotational grazing is to first spend time researching both with academia and with practicing producers. Learn about what has been done in the past that both worked and didn’t work. What is the latest research showing? What can you expect for the costs versus benefits for your proposed operation? Get an understanding of all your expected inputs:
Land – where will you locate your operation? What is the soil type? What forage is currently growing in the area? What are the seasonal issues and how will you compensate? Drought, monsoon, cold, hot
Livestock – what species do you want to manage? What infrastructure is needed?
- Type of fence – High tensile steel, woven wire, electric
- What is needed for shelter?
- How will you manage health issues
- Where will you process your production?
- As you are rotating, how will you maintain water availability?
- How often will you rotate?
- Who will do the rotating?
- What could go wrong?
- What is your back up plan?
Where will you market your production? What will your unique selling proposal be? Why will people want your product instead of something else that is available?
What licensing and certification is required?
Who will be your mentors and your knowledge base when you have questions?
How will you finance your startup until you are making a profit?
Put together your business plan based on input from other producers who are already doing it. Allow time and money for unexpected circumstances. Put together a prioritized purchasing and action plan based on the amount of time and money that you have available.
Have one year, five year and twenty year plans and revise them annually.
Amie from Franchesca’s Dawn Farm
Amie is helping to make a difference with Franchesca’s Dawn Farm in Virginia. Her farm is serving up everything from grass-fed beef to pastured eggs.
I guess the biggest thing is to start slow. I purchased too many cattle for our property. I had read every book out there on rotational grazing and thought this was going to be easy. Turns out that my area suffers from drought every summer and I couldn’t apply much of what I had learned to our property. This was partly because we are in the Fescue Belt – without fertilizer, fescue doesn’t do much growing in the summer months. Grazing it to the ground in the summer leaves it too weak to produce much for fall grazing. I found that I need to pull the cows off of the fescue to let it rest over the summer for fall grazing. After four years I’m seeing results, my pastures look fantastic. But my next piece of advice would be to have permanent paddocks that make it easy to keep one strand of poly wire hot. I have a few cows that bust through it letting out the entire herd, and the lack of permanent paddocks means that the cows are all over my farm at the moment!
Nick Wallace – Wallace Farms
Wallace Farms is serving Iowa and Illinois up with some of the finest grass-fed beef around.
When trying to efficiently and productively rotationally graze, the cattle will tell you everything you need to know. Watch their temperament, their cow pie consistency, and their grazing patterns. One of the mistakes we made years ago was not leaving enough behind. I thought grazing it down and then resting was enough, but having a good cover to keep the soil cool and pounding some of it in with their hoove action is a better practice. Graze half, leave half is a good goal. Keep the pasture thick and keep them moving!
Cazzi Wacholz – Wacholz Farm
Cazzi runs Wacholz Farm and provides the state of Minnesota with everything from grass-finished beef to pastured chicken.
My best advice is not to overstock and don’t leave your cattle in one spot to long and overgraze. The thing is if these animals particularly cows, steers, and bulls don’t get enough energy, i.e. tips of plants. They will be deprived. A deprived animal can develop pink eye, foot problems and other maladies. If a cow is deprived so is her calf. If a steer is deprived its impossible to finish and create tender beef. There are lots of information on this from Stockman Grass Farmer and I’ve experienced it first hand.
Nick from Grand View Farms
The team at Grand View Farm raises everything from pastured pork to grass-fed beef on their Maryland farm.
Rotating cattle on pasture should be one of the most enjoyable tasks on the farm, so make sure you try to set it up that way from the beginning. Make sure you have a good perimeter fence, portable water source and portable power for the electric fence (we use car batteries). Make your paddocks small, one day rotations seem to give the best results when you come back around on the grass a second and third time for the year. Remember not to graze too low, you can always come back around to it if you left too much the first time. We use Gallagher turbo wire on reels with step in posts. Its the fastest, easiest and most profitable way we’ve found to make daily paddocks. Don’t go crazy buying purebred cattle and paying too much, remember you make your money on the buy. With that said, we’ve had the most success with breeds better adapted to finish on grass, such as devon and hereford. We are looking forward to getting some south polls, they seem to do great too. Marketing your product is easy when you start early. Establish an email list of interested folks and give monthly updates with a picture or two on the herd and encourage them to reserve a share ahead of time. Telling the story will be way more successful than cold calling folks when the meat is hanging.
Jason from Amazing Creator
Jason and his family are producing grass-finished beef in the state of Pennsylvania. You can find his writings over at his site, Amazing Creator.
The best thing for new grazers is to read Joel Salatin’s book Salad Bar Beef.
Michael Kovach – Walnut Hill Farm
Michael and his family run Walnut Hill Farm over in Pennsylvania. They produce everything from silvopastured pigs to grass-fed Angus beef.
My best advice to someone just starting out rotationally grazing cattle would be to pay close attention to your pastures. For example: Timing when you turn cattle into a sward very carefully can do everything from help to reduce unwanted species (think: field bindweed) to propagating more desirable species. For example, this year we saw the birdsfoot trefoil in one paddock was “ready to graze” by the best agronomic advice. But there was bindweed obvious and thick in the sward. So we waited. Our cue to turn cattle in became when the bindweed started to flower (when those plants had sent ALOT of energy up the stalk and out of the roots to make those flowers, in preparation for seed-making). As a bonus, by that time, about 20% of the trefoil had set viable seed, which helped to propagate that most munchable of legumes in that (and adjoining) paddocks. Also, sometimes overgrazing can serve a purpose, but under resting is never a good idea!
Rob Tait – Celtic Ridge Farms
A family farm that has been in the family since 1873, Celtic Ridge Farms provides Ontario with everything from naturally raised beef to naturally raised lamb.
Make sure you have the capital to do fencing & to implement a rotational grazing program.
The reels, fence, connectors all that equipment is expensive, but it should be a one time cost to start and then supplement as you increase your intensity (ie purchase of new reels)
Invest in a good energizer. You need to have one that makes it known to your livestock that they should not test the fence.
Realize the time commitment to rotational grazing. If you are doing an intensive program you will be moving your livestock every day or every few days. If you have big acreage, take the time and walking into consideration. I usually walk 15km per day when I’m intensively rotating pastures on three farms. If you have an atv this will significantly cut down the time, but getting out and walking with your cattle has its upsides for the calmness of your cattle and helps with mental health of the farmer.
Make sure that you have a good perimeter fence that is always a necessity. This is key to ensuring that you have your livestock secure. My wife & I both have off farm careers so we need to make sure that our cattle are secure.
Try new things. I have been building new fence, clearing fence rows for close to 15 years and I still have a few more years till I’m satisfied with my paddocks. BUT each year I try new things. Whether it’s strip grazing, traditional rotations, growing cover crops there are all sorts of new and innovative things to try. At the end of the day, if my feeder cattle are gaining more and my cows are maintaining on the pasture I am happy. Prolonging the grazing season and saving on feeding hay in the fall or early winter is another indicator of a successful grazing season.
Develop a pasture yearly plan. Whether you write down on paper, white board or your phone try and keep records and develop a plan for each pasture, each year. I put down when cattle go into a certain paddock. Then prognosticate when they will go back in after optimal growth. This is a good way to know what you do each year so that you can plan on that on a yearly basis.
Other than that, try it out and see how it goes. It’s not for everyone because of the amount of work and investment but it definitely helps with the success of the cattle and helps with the sustainable agriculture practices that we have on our farm.
Scott from Sacred Song Farm
Started by first generation farmers with a diverse set of experiences, Sacred Song Farm sells only the finest pasture-based meats in Colorado.
Watch the rumen, that triangular stomach just in front of the back left hip and under the spine. Keep it full. You dont want to see the triangle. Watch the grass. Keep the soil covered and some of that solar panel, grass leaf, standing so the plant can never stop photosynthesizing. Best case scenario, 2/3 of the grass plant left behind during growing season. Adjust your electric fence accordingly. Get as much material laid down before and during the winter as possible.
Jerel from Covenant Pastures
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Covenant Pastures serves up everything from pastured eggs to grass-fed beef to pastured pork.
Here are the things we learned in central California in an arid low-rainfall area:
1. Don’t graze when the grass is new; wait till it is at 70-80% of mature height first, otherwise you dramatically reduce total grass yield and you compact the soil and then you will have lots of undesirable weeds come in.
2. Move very quickly when the grass is green, moving every day; don’t let them take a second bite out of the growing green grass! That dramatically slows regrowth, and our growing window is very short here (Jan-April).
3. Once the grass goes brown (May-Dec) you can continually graze larger tracts; we tend to try to graze 1 animal per 1 acre and leave them there until the desired ground cover is left. That’s usually about 1 month or less for us.
4. It’s very important to leave the ground covered with ungrazed grass when done grazing; no bare spots! The exception is if I have a holistic goal to renovate some ground in the winter rainy season by mob grazing and feeding hay using the hay and manure as ground cover. I may take that grass all the way down if the cattle can work the soil and loosen it.
Clay and Ash Armstrong – Armstrong Acres
Clay and Ash are first generation farmers that run Armstrong Acres and raise everything from grass-fed beef to pastured eggs in Alberta.
The biggest factor when starting out is one very hard to pin down as there are many issues that can arise when rotationally grazing your herd.
I will mention a few points:
1. Electric fence train your cows in a paddock with a solid fence before turning them out. Do this by running a single strand of hot almost across the entire pen and let curiousity start the process of learning. After a couple days/shock treatments the respect will start to grow for a single strand
2. Do the math for the amount of paddocks needed and match this with your desired graze time to rest time. We have found a 75-90 day rest yields the best results on the majority of our pastures
3. Live by the theory of “Graze a 1/3, Trample a 1/3, and Leave a 1/3”. This will ensure that most plants get grazed once and what is trampled, will help stimulate the biology in the soil. With trampling you also cover the soil which will improve your water holding capabilities making your pastures more resilient in drought years. Leaving a 1/3 allows enough leaf matter (solar panel for the plant) to capture sunlight for photosynthesis, will also allow the plant to winter better as it won’t be in a stressed state from overgrazing.
4. KEEP RECORDS! This can be very simple or as in depth as you would like it. Time and date in and time and date out, any major weather events, pasture condition before and after, as well as anything learned. These records can also help show you on paper how much your land will improve using this grazing management style.
I hope this is some use for all the future Graziers out there.
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Wow! We’d like to send a huge thanks to all of the farmers who were kind enough to add their expertise to this post.
Their insightful replies go a long way to clear up some of the mystery surrounding rotational grazing.