The What & Why of Rotational Grazing
Updated: Jan 2, 2020
by Brian Campbell, NRCS-Maryland Grazing Specialist
There are many variations but rotational grazing is essentially a grazing system in which livestock are moved from one portion of the pasture to another as needed to avoid overgrazing and to allow forages a chance to recover. The alternative is continuous grazing, in which livestock are kept on one undivided pasture during the entire grazing season (usually April through November or year-round).
There is a spectrum of options for how intensely rotational grazing is implemented. On the low-intensity end of the spectrum, a farmer could have one undivided pasture and move their livestock into a barnyard whenever that pasture needs a rest. On the other end, a farmer could split their pastureland into hundreds of paddocks (i.e. pasture subdivisions) using permanent and/or temporary fence and move their animals from one paddock to the next every 30 minutes. As grazing gets intensified, you will have more paddocks of smaller size, grazing periods will get shorter (allowing rest periods to get longer), and stocking density (the number of livestock per acre on a single paddock at a specific point in time) will increase. Distribution of manure, urine, and grazing will also become more uniform across the pasture.
Is it worth your time to start grazing rotationally? While any move away from continuous grazing will increase the amount of forage available (because forages will have a chance to regrow), the most impressive benefits come from high-intensity rotational grazing. There is not a standard definition for this but the idea is to provide just enough forage in each paddock for a maximum of three days of grazing and then rotating animals out once the paddock has been grazed to the desired height.
Compared to a continuous grazing situation, high-intensity rotational grazing can increase the amount of forage consumed by up to 4,000 pounds of dry-matter per acre every year (Undersander, Albert, Cosgrove, Johnson & Peterson, 2002).
A University of Georgia study (Hoveland, McCann & Hill, 1997) comparing rotational grazing to continuous grazing on a cow-calf operation found the following results:
Rotational grazing resulted in increased forage persistence and productivity, more than doubling production during some periods when compared to continuous grazing.
Forage quality was similar for both continuous and rotational grazing.
Rotational grazing resulted in up to 39% less hay fed when compared to continuous grazing.
Rotational grazing increased calf weaning-weight per acre by 37% and allowed stocking rate to be increased by 38% when compared to continuous grazing.
Cow weight-change, pregnancy rate, and individual calf weaning-weights were the same for both continuous and rotational grazing.
The results above illustrate the significant potential of intensive rotational grazing for increasing productivity, profitability, and sustainability. Likewise, a Pennsylvania State University study (Cunningham & Hanson, 1996) confirmed that intensively grazed pasture is the most economical use of dairy-farm acres. After accounting for production costs and storage losses, intensively grazed pasture was roughly twice as profitable per acre as corn-silage or continuously grazed pasture and it was more than six times more profitable than hay.
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