Each year after the first of January many people ask us what our plans are for the upcoming year. What do we want to accomplish? For many of this may mean writing down some goals for our lives and include items like losing 10 pounds, eating healthier, finally taking that trip to Paris, or maybe finishing the basement remodeling project we have been working on sporadically for the last 5 years. January is an excellent time to do this, but did you know that January is also an excellent time to also look at our livestock management and planned grazing for the next year as well? The winds are howling, temperatures are in the single digits, and ice and snow have made the roads into town treacherous. What better time is there than to sit in front of a warm fire and look at how you will manage your grass for the upcoming year.
Many of you may be asking what types of grazing practices or prescribed grazing systems are actually out there and what do they all mean. Should I rotate my animals really fast through a lot of little paddocks, can I leave my livestock in one big pasture for the entire year, or is there something in between that would work best for me, are all questions you may be asking. Before I answer those questions lets first define planned or prescribed grazing. Prescribed grazing practices are planned efforts used by producers that help them accomplish operating goals. They are used to improve pasture conditions, increase forage use, and enhance livestock production. There are many grazing systems available that allow producers to successfully reach their goals, and each has their advantages and disadvantages. The three most common systems include, continuous grazing, simple rotational grazing, and intensive rotational grazing.
Continuous or season long grazing is a one pasture system where livestock have unrestricted access throughout the grazing season. It requires the least amount of management, but has the most disadvantages in terms of rangeland and livestock production and ecosystem structure and function. Typically with continuous grazing producers experience lower forage quality and yields, lower stocking rates, uneven pasture use, uneven distribution of animal manure, increased incidence of weeds, and increased erosion. However continuous grazing systems require the least amount of time and energy.
Simple rotational grazing is a system with more than one pasture which livestock are moved to allow for periods of grazing and rest for forages. Examples of this system include deferred rotation and rest rotation grazing. Both of these systems use a small number of pastures, typically under 5, and up to three livestock herds. Advantages of a simple rotational grazing system include increased forage production, improved pasture condition, longer grazing season, and better distribution of manure. Disadvantages are fencing costs, water system costs, and more intensive labor than with continuous grazing systems.
Intensive rotational grazing is a system with many pastures and livestock are moved frequently from pasture to pasture based on forage growth and utilization. An example of this system includes short-duration grazing, where the grazing area is divided into many small pastures (greater than 5), each of which may receive more than one period of non use and grazing during a single growing season. The number of non use and grazing periods depends on the rate and amount of forage produced within each pasture. Advantages of this system include highest forage production and use per acre, increased stocking rates, weeds are typically controlled, provides more grazing options, and reduces the need for harvested forages. Disadvantages include careful monitoring of forage supply, initial costs are high for fencing and water distribution systems, intensive management needs, and large labor resources.
Grazing management systems are excellent ways to increase forage management and livestock production; however implementing a grazing system does not eliminate the need to observe basic principles of grazing management, such as stocking rates and season of use. Rangeland monitoring is critical to document the successes and failures of grazing systems and is essential to the maintenance of a grazing plan. So while the snow is flying and the year is fresh with possibility take some time to explore different grazing options, but also remember that when summer rolls around it is a good time to also do some one the ground monitoring. This monitoring of grazing and vegetation characteristics will make planning the next year’s grazing a breeze.