By HEATHER SMITH THOMAS
Rotational grazing means subdividing existing pastures, moving cattle periodically to new segments, and allowing the grazed portion to recover and regrow before returning to it again. But is it all worth the effort?
Jim Gerrish, American Grazinglands Services in Patterson, Idaho, is a grazing consultant who helps ranchers implement grazing systems. “In my experience, investments in subdivision fencing and stock water to manage grazing provide some of the best returns on investments of anything we can do in the ranching business,” he says.
“The higher the productivity of the land, the faster the payoff will be. Even on arid rangeland with low to moderate productivity, over time these investments will improve range condition and pay for themselves in the long term. On irrigated pasture, they pay back very quickly,” says Gerrish.
“Before you lay pipeline and build fence, it pays to do a cost-benefit analysis, looking at what your expected added income would be and what the additional costs for the practice would be. You also have to factor in the money saved,” says Gerrish. The money saved compared to what you were doing before can pay for the improvements, he notes.
“Ultimately, animal product is what has to pay for it. You either pay for the investment through increased animal product, or by saving other costs while still producing the same amount of animal product. If you can graze for a longer period with the same number of animals, the investment gets paid for by reduction in cost of hay for winter,” he says.
• Ranchers can improve pasture production with rotational grazing.
• Moving cattle often and letting grazed areas regrow improve plant health.
• Improved production and saving on hay costs quickly pays for any investments.
Gerrish had a client in Montana who invested $33,000 in fencing on winter range, which paid for itself in one year’s savings in hay. “So every winter after that first one [which already paid for the fence] was essentially putting $30,000 to $40,000 straight into his profit column,” explains Gerrish.
Managed properly, you get more production per acre grazing irrigated land than putting up hay on that land, because of greater potential for regrowth. More tons per acre for cattle can offset investment in setting up a rotational grazing system.
“I move my cattle every day, and some people move cattle multiple times per day, but you really start getting a higher level of benefit when you get the grazing periods down to less than three or four days, “ explains Gerrish. “Rotating twice a week or more frequently will typically give a 30% to 50% increase in land and animal productivity, compared to rotating every two to three weeks.”
This is why rotating through a series of small paddocks can be considered a best management practice, because it increases production of the land and livestock. Cattle are on each piece a shorter time, giving it more recovery time, which is better for the plants.
Best management practice
Rotation reduces the need for chemical fertilizer. “People who have predominantly grass pastures usually rely on nitrogen fertilizer. If they change to a more intensive rotational grazing, they can establish and maintain a strong legume population in the pastures, and eliminate the need for nitrogen fertilization.” Soil fertility is improved by increased manure coverage and by more legumes in the pasture.
By not buying fertilizer, “the money saved is often the money that actually pays for the fence and water development. We’ve seen situations where two years’ savings in the fertilizer pays for the infrastructure on a per-acre basis,” he explains.
Smith Thomas writes from Salmon, Idaho.
Be sure to do homework first
Anyone considering a paddock grazing system should talk with people who have already done it, look at what other ranchers have done on their pastures, or have a consultant recommend locations for fencing and water sources, says Jim Gerrish, American Grazinglands Services. “Someone with experience can help you avoid costly mistakes — by being able to set it up correctly the first time.”
He recently consulted with ranchers near Idaho Falls, Idaho, who want to graze pivots.
“Almost everybody’s first thought when they decide to change from making hay on pivots to grazing those fields is to put the stock tank at the center and the fences radiating out from the center. But that design has multiple problems, which include the distances you have to run electric fences, and overgrazing around the water at the center,” he says.
“On quarter-section pivots, we’ve seen as much as 5 acres around the pivot center trampled out or growing weeds because of excessive animal impact. To avoid this, we use a circular fence halfway between the pivot center and the outer reach, and put stock water on that circle,” says Gerrish.
One way to learn more about paddock design and do the financial planning is to attend a grazing school like the Lost Rivers Grazing Academy. “This year the school will be Sept. 9-12 at the Eagle Valley Ranch near Salmon, Idaho,” says Gerrish.
This article published in the July, 2014 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.
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