By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Coordinator
Last month on the Climate Column, we introduced the idea of prescribed grazing, a conservation practice in which the frequency and intensity of grazing, as well as the density and placement of livestock, are regulated with a specific goal in mind. Prescribed grazing can be carried out in a number of different ways, depending on the size and type of operation, topography, climate, season, and desired outcomes.
Rotational grazing is one of the most common forms of prescribed grazing. Under rotational grazing, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) describes it, “only one portion of pasture is grazed at a time while the remainder of the pasture ‘rests.’” Before incorporating rotational grazing into their management plans, producers must use fences to partition their grazing land into smaller subdivisions, known as “paddocks.” Livestock are then herded from paddock to paddock and allowed to graze for a specified amount of time, allowing the rest of the land to rejuvenate during that period.
By allowing the forage to regrow, rotational grazing offers a number of conservation benefits. For one, it can decrease the risk of soil erosion. Healthy and robust forage has a deep root system, which can stabilize soil, as well as vegetative cover, which can protect soil from wind and water. Furthermore, moving livestock frequently can prevent soil compaction, which in turn increases the soil’s infiltration capacity. This provides additional conservation benefits; greater infiltration capacity inhibits the occurrence of runoff, which may carry plant nutrients, manure, and pesticides into nearby land water. Ground water quality may benefit as well; rotationally grazed land does not require as many nutrient inputs, and deeper roots can absorb nutrients further down in the soil, both of which decrease the quantity of contaminants entering ground water.
Rotational grazing does not merely offer conservation benefits. Many producers choose to implement the practice because of the economic efficiency it affords. Forage raised in this system is typically healthier, more resilient, and more abundant than those grown in a continuous system, which can save farmers money on feed and other inputs. Additionally, the start-up costs and maintenance expenses are low, as are the time requirements, when compared to a confinement system that necessitates significant infrastructure and time spent feeding livestock. And wildlife can benefit as well; like many conservation practices, rotational grazing can bolster wildlife habitats by allowing native species to grow undisturbed.
Have you used prescribed grazing on your operation? If so, how has it benefitted you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
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We are just at the start of our third season since we began rotationally grazing our beef cattle. In 2015 we converted 50 acres of corn field into diverse pasture, in 2016 40 more acres followed, and we are now in the process of fencing another 160 acres this year. We have really enjoyed the difference in how the animals are raised as well as the premium prices for natural and grass-finished cattle. We are still learning quite a bit, but we have got the basics well covered when it comes to grazing. Today I was in a bit of a hurry with the arrival of guests and I was able to put up the day’s fence and water and move the cattle in 20 minutes. For forty cows, that’s pretty efficient time-wise. In the coming weeks we’ll move to twice a day moves so that we can optimize growth rates (2.5+ avg. daily gains) once the grasses become a bit more digestible. We are strong proponents of well-managed grazing and what it means to the future of rural communities.