Pasture & Grazing
PASTURE & GRAZING
Most cattle are grazed predominantly on permanent perennial pasture. The bovine, a ruminant, is designed to ingest large volumes of biomass by grazing on grass, other pasture plants, and hay. The animal digests (ruminates) this matter in its rumen, the first chamber of a ruminant's four-part stomach.
Regardless of what you plant in your pasture, eventually the grasses will transition to ones that are acclimated to the soils, rainfall, animal pressure, temperature/sunlight and grazing management on that particular parcel.
The grazing itself will contribute (1) the penetration of sunlight, (2) the scarification (by hoofs) of seeds that have laid dormant in the soil - sometimes for decades, and (3) manure and urine. Ultimately the pasture that results from years of good management will be a polyculture that includes many species of grasses and other pasture plants that could not grow in that place until the action of soil biology - fostered by rotational grazing - made certain soil nutrients available again.
The rumen needs an appropriate balance of protein, minerals, and energy to function optimally; any large imbalance leads to dysfunction and illness (such as acidosis from grain feeding on a feedlot). We have often observed that when cattle are offered a mix of grasses and other forage, plus a choice of mineral supplements, they are remarkably capable of choosing what their bodies need for nutrition.
A Brix meter (refractometer) can be used to measure the basic nutrition level of the grass. If the energy in the plants is inadequate, numerous methodologies have been developed to improve the quality of the pasture, including foliar sprays and a Yeoman plow for stirring subsoil without turning over the soil.
Grazing management calls for moving animals in a rotation from paddock to paddock over time, with new paddocks being created by moving flexible fencing. Eventually the cattle are cycled back to the original paddock, ideally after the land has had sufficient rest to regrow the grass. This will foster deep roots, which are important for building topsoil and making soil minerals available to the cattle via soil microbes. The plants may be green or brown, depending on the nutritional needs of the bovine group, with grass that has gone to seed providing the most energy.
Grazing with a high density of animals per acre is recommended, as long as the animals are moved to a new paddock at appropriate intervals. While grass will begin to regrow in as little as four days, re-grazing the growing tips stunts the plant’s potential growth. Allowing adequate time for paddocks to rest and rejuvenate is more important than the frequency of the rotation.
Rotating a herd of cattle, or perhaps different groups of cattle, through numerous paddocks requires a systematic approach. A grazing plan must be developed, but the original plan will need to be modified often based on the weather, the cattle, and the rate of growth of the grass.
Also, see the Husbandry page for more details.
We highly recommend the Holistic Management approach to a grazing plan. These materials are used in a course that typically takes place over several days at a minimum; the first two items are a grazing manual and grazing plan template.
EXTENDING THE GRAZING SEASON
The following two methods for grazing more throughout the year ) have been proven in the Northeast and will reduce the expense of feeding hay:
(1) Planting some paddocks with cover crops that will start growing prior to the perennial grasses, and continue growing into the fall. Crops should be planted with no-till seeding.
(2) "Stockpiling" grass, which in the Northeast means designating some paddocks that are not grazed or cut after July, so that they can be grazed in winter: December, January, and February. The cattle will graze this stockpiled forage readily - even if they have to poke their noses through snow to get at it. The nutrition will be equal to or better than hay or balage. See our results in bar graph at left.
While there will be times when the snow is too deep for winter grazing, any day that the cattle graze rather than eat hay means money in the producer's pocket. Note: cattle should be finished (fattened) in warm weather months, but finished cattle will hold their condition through the Northeast winter.
Finishing cattle on pasture is a skilled, time-consuming job. Finishing for market in a time frame that is economical, calls for moving the animals frequently to new pasture - usually multiple times per day - so that they have continuous access to the top third of the plants, which is where the energy calories are found. There are no formulas for when to move the cattle; this is a judgement call based on a number of variables: the weather, the grass, and the condition of the cattle.
Cattle in the finishing phase of production are often grazed on annual grasses planted by no-till methods, as well as on perennial pasture. Grazing a mix of cover crops (known as a “cocktail”) further enhances the cattle’s rate of gain in finishing.
See the short video below demonstrating a tumble wheel, which enables one person to move an interior fence quickly and easily.