by Gordon Jones, WKU Animal Science Professor (retired)

Continual evaluation of pasture management and forage systems should be routine for all beef cattle producers in KY. Numerous articles concerning the advantages of improved pasture and forage management systems have been published. For example, Tommy Yankey did an excellent job of discussing the benefits of rotational grazing in the June issue of Cow Country News. Yet, as one travels through the state of KY, it is easy to see more pastures overgrazed than pastures that have been rotated and rested. In addition to rotational grazing, strategic use of legumes as well as incorporating warm and cool season forages can enhance profitability.

Getting Started in Rotational Grazing – Many cattle producers think that rotational grazing requires a complex system with equal size paddocks. This author believes every farmer who owns cattle could begin a system of rotational grazing with very little additional investment.

Initiating rotational grazing may only require the farmer to open and close gates to divide pastures into smaller paddocks. As an example, a typical hillside, bottom, and upland farm of about 40 acres of pasture was utilized as a single pasture with continuous grazing for 15 spring calving cows and calves. The farm was continuously overgrazed, and as expected, the cows were thin with Body Condition Scores (BCS) of 3 or 4. The farm was leased to a very progressive cattleman who had the desire to run more cattle on the farm. By simply closing gates and running one strand of poly wire electrified by a solar charger, the farm was divided into 7 paddocks, varying in size from 3 to 8 acres. With no seeding of additional forages, the farm now runs 25 to 30 pairs of spring calving cows and calves. The pastures seldom appear overgrazed and the cows usually have BCS of 5 or 6.

When beginning rotational grazing, it is advisable to begin by using temporary electric fencing before dividing paddocks with permanent fencing. By working with temporary fencing and observing grazing and watering and shade usage, the cattle farmer can determine where permanent fencing and additional water sources may be needed.

Number of Paddocks and Frequency of Moving – How many paddocks are necessary to begin rotational grazing? The simple answer is 2; however, it is important to realize that improved forage utilization will occur by adding additional paddocks to allow for longer periods of rest and recovery for each paddock. Research data indicate that efficiency of pasture utilization will increase with each added paddock up to about 8. There are no disadvantages to having more than 8 paddocks, but the improvement in utilization by adding paddocks beyond 8 is usually minimal. One of the most important concepts for success in rotational grazing is the need for rest and recovery of pastures. It is probably a fair statement to say that even the most experienced graziers often do not provide enough time for pasture rest and recovery, particularly during periods of drought. Dividing pastures into more paddocks simply allows for more management control of the available forages.

How often should the cattle be moved? This is a common question that cattle farmers ask when considering rotational grazing; however, there is NO simple answer. The best answer is that the cattle should usually be moved when about half of the available forage has been consumed. The real “art of becoming a good grazier” is in learning to recognize when cattle need to be moved. Or stated another way, the art is in recognizing the “cattle signals” that indicate the cattle should be moved. Cattle quickly learn to recognize the sounds and appearance of the vehicles that are used by those moving the cattle. When the sights and sounds of those people and/or vehicles are recognized, the cattle will usually signal if it is time to rotate.

Maintaining a Mixture of Legumes in Fescue Pastures – Adding legumes to fescue pastures will increase the protein content of the forage mixture, dilute the detrimental effects of the fescue endophyte, and fix nitrogen to enhance the growth of grasses. This is particularly important for late spring and summer grazing since fescue tends to become less palatable and much slower in growth as temperatures increase during the summer. For spring and summer grazing, it is desirable to have both red and white clovers in the pasture mix. Korean, Kobe, or Legend lespedeza can also provide excellent late summer grazing.

Adding Warm Season Grasses – There are several warm season grasses that can be utilized during the summer when fescue becomes somewhat dormant and unpalatable. Crabgrass and Johnson grass are recognized as pests for crop farmers, but are two of the very best grasses for summer grazing. Native crabgrass or one of the improved varieties, Red River or Quick-N-Big®, developed by Dr. Dalrymple at the Noble Foundation in OK can provide excellent grazing during the hot summer. Most farmers have probably noticed that if patches of crabgrass are available, cattle will graze the crabgrass before any other forage species. Johnson grass is also highly palatable and grows rapidly during the summer. Beef cattle producers should treat Johnson grass as a luxury rather than as a pest. Also, millet, sudan grass, and sudan x sorghum hybrids are grasses that can be seeded to provide grazing during the summer months.

Using Winter Annuals for Late Fall and Early Spring Grazing – Probably the two most desirable winter annuals are cereal rye and annual rye grass. These two forages can be sown together, separately as a monoculture, or sown into an existing fescue stand. Marshall rye grass has been a very popular choice to use in either setting. A quick recovery time following grazing is a positive attribute of Marshall rye grass. Other crops such as some of the brassicas have been used successfully by many farmers.

Net Results of Rotational Grazing and Improved Pasture Management

  • Increased microbial and earthworm activity results in improved soil health. As the soil health is improved, the need for fertilizer application declines.
  • More even distribution of manure over the pastures results in better utilization of the manure for fertilizer.
  • Appropriate ground cover reduces water runoff resulting in greater water supplying capacity of the soil.
  • When the ground is covered with desirable forage plants, weeds are less likely to become established.
  • An extended grazing season decreases the need for stored and purchased feedstuffs.
  • Cattle performance improves and the stocking rate can be increased.

These results increase profitability by reducing feed, labor and management cost per pound of calf marketed!!! Almost always, total pounds produced per acre will also be greatly increased!!!