October 3, 2018

Developing a Pasture Rotation Plan: Part 1

In my "Soil Building Experiment #2: Pastures" blog post I mentioned our five subgoals for pasture improvement. Subdividing them for a better grazing rotation is one of those goals.

Until now, our pasture rotation system has been a simple one; two paddocks each for the does and the bucks, so sometimes I put then in one, sometimes in the other. The problem with this system is that it hasn't helped the condition of our pastures. That needs to change.

I learned a lot about pasture rotation while I was researching for Prepper's Livestock Handbook. Over this past summer I've been working on how to apply what I learned to our own homestead. I started by analyzing the goals and methods of the books and articles I read. It seems to me that the rationale for rotating grazing can be divided into one of three focuses.
  1. Health of the forage
  2. Health of the animals
  3. Health of the soil

Health of the forage

One of our big mistakes when we first moved to our homestead was treating our pastures like lawn. We mowed them like they were lawn and Dan was concerned about things like de-thatching. What we didn't understand, is that different kinds of grasses have been developed for different applications. Lawn and turf grasses were developed to grow thick and short, which means they require certain management techniques. Pasture and hay grasses grow tall, and require different management techniques. Unfortunately, scalping them like lawn is not one of them.

It's not just a mower that can scalp pastures, so can livestock if left in an area for too long. This is why a rotation plan is important to keep forage healthy.

The focus with this goal is the height of the forage. There are charts that list the different pasture grasses and the heights to begin grazing and when to quit. I suppose one can be scrupulously technical about this, but a generalized summary for this method is:
  • Don't graze forage down below four inches
  • Allow 20 to 30 day for forage recovery
  • Allow grazing again when forage is 8 to 10 inches tall

For more details, On Pasture Magazine has a good introductory article on the subject, "Grazing Height Determines the Health of Your Forages."

Health of the animals

The particular concern here is internal parasites, especially worms. Pasture rotation is part of "integrated parasite management" (IPM). IPM includes use of wormers based on test results (fecal or FAMACHA i.e. level of anemia) rather than a schedule, developing the animals' immune system through culling and breeding for resistance, good sanitation practices, forage that promotes parasite resistance, and pasture rotation. Sounds complicated, doesn't it? It has become complicated because livestock parasites develop resistance to chemical wormers. Some wormers no longer work in some parts of the country.

For this blog post, I'm just going to focus on the IPM guidelines for pasture rotation. Recommendations seem to vary depending on the source, but here's what I've pulled together:
  • Don't graze forage below a couple of inches
  • Multispecies graze to "vacuum" the fields (because cattle aren't susceptible to the same parasites goats and sheep are)
  • Don't graze any paddock more than three to five days
  • Don't graze when forage is wet (parasite larvae need moisture to climb plants so they can be ingested)
  • Don't overstock paddocks
  • Allow pasture to rest. Recommendations vary between 21 to 65 days, depending on the particular parasite problem.
  • Some sources are now recommending mowing down to about an inch or two in height to allow sun and air circulation to dry the soil and kill larvae. (Personally, I think this is a very bad idea, but it's out there.)

You can learn more about IPM at
And you can find some encouraging personal testimonies on the effectiveness of pasture rotation in controlling internal parasites at the following:

Health of the soil

This one is used for soil building, and ties in with everything I've been learning about soil and carbon. The technique here might be called intensive rotational grazing, although it has other names. It was pioneered by Allan Savory in Zimbabwe and popularized by Joel Salatin as "mob grazing." Here's a summary:
  • high stock density (250 - 500 cows per acre)
  • rotate stock once or more per day (rule of thumb - graze 50%, leave 50%)
  • long forage rest (5 to 6 months)

Some people have trouble with this one, because the high stocking density pretty much goes against everything we've been taught about livestock and grazing. But when managed properly, the results are phenomenal, as reported by everyone who practices it. Allan Savory, for example, is using this method to turn desert back into grassland. Missouri cattle rancher Greg Judy has been able to stop buying pasture seed, fertilizer, and hay, eliminate the use of machinery, yet has doubled beef production and increased forage quality and diversity.

Why does it work? Because when livestock are concentrated in small areas, they will either eat it or trample it. However, they are moved before they overgraze (graze 50%, leave 50%). The trampled forage begins to decay which in turn feeds soil organisms, helps retain soil moisture, sequesters carbon, and builds the soil. The long rest period allows forage to recover fully before being grazed again.
  • The key is monitoring forage and knowing when to move them. 
  • The challenge is that rotation and rest cycles are highly variable, depending on the season, weather, and condition of the forage.

For further reading I highly recommend:

If you're like me, I'm sure you see the similarities amongst these three management methods. So I see no reason why I can't accomplish all three goals. That's what I'm working on now, so stay tuned for "Developing a Pasture Rotation Plan: Part 2."


Pioneer Woman at Heart said...

Yeah, we never let out goats out when it rained or the grass was wet either. Too many chances for them to eat something not good for them.

Ed said...

There once were a lot of farmers up around here that were doing Intensive Grazing and it was pretty obvious to me the benefits of doing so just by seeing how the pastures looked. But as farms have gotten bigger, many of the people around here just focus on grain now and not livestock so I don't see it as much. There is a neighbor that still raises cattle and they have been on the same pasture non-stop since I was a baby. I can't think I have ever seen the grass close to four inches tall. For the most part it has always looked like a poorly kept putting green dotted with mounds of manure. The complete opposite of healthy.

Fiona said...

Awesome information. Ralph and I are learning "our" grass and its growth pattern and applying a lot of these techniques to this farm
Its quite an adventure. The weeds add another factor. Some weeds the animals love some they avoid. Thank you for the links.

Leigh said...

Kristina, fortunately goats don't like getting their feet wet anyway! ;)

Ed, the consensus on the intensive grazing rotations seems to be that it makes a positive difference with forage. I just wish we'd known about it sooner.

Fiona, it's definitely a learning curve! All the more challenging because our locations and choice of livestock are variable factors. My problem has been that I let the goats overeat the weeds they love, which let the stuff they don't like become dominant. That's a lot of what we need to correct.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Thanks Leigh! I am very excited about this project - at least, living vicariously through it anyway.

Leigh said...

TB, I just hope it has exciting results!

Rain said...

I'm also living vicariously through your project Leigh. It looks like a lot of research and work is involved. I do hope you get the results you want. It's all so important for your lifestyle. By the way Happy Autumn!! :)

Leigh said...

Rain, I know you and Alex are getting close to buying your own place, so I hope my research will be helpful if you decide to get livestock too. If we'd known this earlier we'd be a little farther along! But it's a learning curve no matter what, no matter where we live or what our goals are. Even so, it's worth it!