Tag: rotational grazing

Rules and Tools for Rotational Grazing

“At the heart of rotational grazing is a replication of the way nature has formed an interaction between ruminants and plants – mainly grassland plants,” notes longtime Wisconsin beef farmer and rotational grazier Jim Munsch.

Munsch likens managed grazing of modern day cattle to the movement of their predecessors, the buffalo on the Great Plains or ruminants in Africa. “That structure involved a ruminant eating a plant off in one area and then moving on to another area where the plants were delicious and plentiful, allowing time for the initial plant that was eaten off to regrow.”

The movement and herding behavior was driven primarily by predators. Today electric fences replicate that effect. “We put animals in a herd on a small piece of land, have them eat the plants down so there is still leaf left, and then have them eat another piece, so the original piece can regrow.”

Allowing for regrowth is key to rotational grazing. In the spring in the upper Midwest, where Munsch grazes his beef, regrowth typically happens in about three weeks. In fall, it takes up to five weeks depending on moisture and length of daylight.

“With some grass and legume species, regrowth starts in 24 hours; therefore, it is best to move the cattle out of the eaten area, so they cannot graze on the immediate regrowth,” advises Munsch.

He aims for his animals to eat half of what is available and leave half to generate new growth and keep plants healthy. Manure distribution and hoof action also contribute to pasture health. Stock density for a healthy pasture on Munsch’s farm is approximately a pound of animal per square foot.

Tools for successful grazing

“Everything we do in terms of tools—fencing, water, shade— is to enhance that biological relationship between the plant and the animal,” notes Munsch.

Fencing – Managed grazing starts with a sturdy perimeter fence consisting of four to six strands of high-tensile or barbed wire. Next single-strand electric wire is used to form large paddocks within that area. Within those large paddocks, one to three days of grazing is enclosed with temporary fencing or polywire.

The size of those areas is determined by the number of animals and the amount of dry matter on the paddock. “A ruminant consumes about 2 ½ to 3% of their body weight daily in dry matter of the plants they consume,” explains Munsch. “You can estimate in a moderately thick stand, there are a couple hundred pounds of dry matter per acre of the sward eaten.”

Water – Providing access to water within each paddock differs for beef and dairy. While most dairy graziers rely on the cows drinking sufficient water in the barnyard, with beef, it’s a different story. “If you are a beef grazier, there is a large return on investment from animal gain if you can put water in each paddock,” says Munsch.

“Additionally, if you have water on the paddock, all of the nutrients the animals eat during the day will then be distributed there. So you have a better nutrient balance on the paddock.”

Shade – The Shade Haven mobile shade structure is a valuable tool for managed grazing. Before Shade Haven, graziers kept animals on paddocks that included trees on the hottest days.That put a restraint on our ability to match animals to where the grass was best for them that day,” notes Munsch, who appreciates his ability to move the shade.

“With Shade Haven, on those blistering hot days, I can put shade on the paddock with the best grass for those animals for that day.”

Rotational grazing vs. continuous grazing

“When plants are eaten off in a managed system, they are eaten off when there is as much plant material below the ground as there is above the ground,” explains Munsch.

Roots draw nutrients and moisture from the soil, while above ground photosynthesis takes place. “When those solar panels—the leaves—are eaten off, there is a huge energy store in the root system, so the plant can regrow,” says Munsch.

With continuous grazing, the animals eat the tender regrowth almost immediately. “The plant’s defense mechanism is to reduce the amount of roots it has, because it wants a balance between the ability of the plant to get energy from the sun and the ability of the plant to get nutrients and moisture from the soil.”

Eventually those plants die and all that remains on the pasture are plant species that grow very close to the ground. “From a production standpoint, you dramatically reduce the yield of dry matter when you continually graze, because you are reducing the ability of the plant to grow,” says Munsch. “And it is dramatic. A managed pasture system, where you allow the plant to regrow, can yield twice as much dry matter.”

The increased yield allows twice as many animals to graze on higher quality forage, resulting in more rapid weight gain. “I joke with people that if a seed corn salesman came onto your farm and said, ‘I can teach you to grow twice as much corn as you grow now,’ you would think he was crazy,” says Munsch. “But with pasture management, you can say that.”

 

Shade Makes Big Impact on Ohio Farm

Drausin Wulsin is in the midst of his first season with a Shade Haven on his farm, Red Stone Farm, in Cynthiana, Ohio. And he already wants another one.

“This is one of the tools that can lead to sustainability on a farm,” says Wulsin. “It gives one the ability to micromanage the land. It is a very effective tool.”

Farming for about 20 years, Wulsin left a career in the financial industry to farm full time. Today 150 bovine units, a couple hundred sheep, some hogs and laying hens graze the fertile lands of Red Stone Farm. Certified organic since 2013, the farm added organic dairy to the mix two years ago.

Wulsin and his wife Susan operate their farm, about 85 miles east of Cincinnati, and a business, Grassroots Farm & Foods, that sells their grass-fed meats and milks to restaurants and people in southern Ohio. They also sell their meats and Susan’s hand-prepared foods on the Grassroots Farm & Foods website.

Wulsin adheres to grass-based, sustainable farm practices, including rotational grazing. “We are constantly moving the animals to fresh pasture and fresh grass,” he says. “We have long rest periods of 30 to 90 days. We move them slowly when the grass is growing slowly.”

He says one of his biggest challenges as a livestock farmer is winter feed. “There are a number of ways to address that. One of which is building organic matter in the soil, so that you grow more feed and have a longer grazing season.”

The Shade Haven is an effective tool for building organic matter. “The beauty of the structure is that it allows you to surgically address issues of shade and issues of infertility,” says Wulsin. “You can place the structure where you want in order to get the greatest impact. It gives me ultimate mobility and flexibility to focus on a small scale on a piece of land. That eventually is going to build organic matter. We move manure away from the trees and into the pastures, that is going to help our pastures and help our organic matter, and ultimately help our bottom line.”

Pleased with the performance of his first Shade Haven, Wulsin anticipates ordering another. “I think it is very well-designed, good looking, mobile and durable. We have had some high winds and it is not affected.”

Casting Shade on Nutrient Management


For beef and dairy farms, crop fertility is ranked as a leading expense, second to the cost of the land. Rotational grazing practices address the pasture fertility issue, moving animals from paddock to paddock every three days. Through this practice, the animals return nutrients to the pasture by grazing, drinking water and depositing the nutrients back on the paddock. A blazing hot sun presents challenges to rotational grazing practices.

“The issue then is not the addition of nutrients, it’s the distribution of nutrients,” explains Wisconsin beef farmer and managed grazer Jim Munsch. “There are university studies that say without shade, most of the nutrients tend to gravitate toward the water source in the paddock. On a hot day, if you have no shade, the animals will either stand on the highest part of the paddock to get the breeze, or they will stand around the water point.”

If there are trees in a pasture, animals will congregate there and deposit minerals primarily in that area. Munsch adds that “true converts to rotational grazing” considered trees as weeds, for that very reason. On a hot day, animals migrate toward them, resulting in unequal distribution of nutrients in the paddock. The solution, eliminate the trees.

Yet, without shade, the animals suffer, and any farmer raising livestock is concerned about animal comfort. Dairy cows are especially susceptible to heat stress, which impacts production and ultimately the bottom line.

Enter Shade Haven

“This in my view is a movable tree,” says Munsch. “Wherever you need nutrients, wherever nutrients have negative migration…a way to get nutrients back into that place is to bring shade there on a sunny day. Shade Haven allows you to move nutrients where you want them. For instance, in my paddock I move cows every day. Here in Wisconsin you can occupy a paddock five or six times during the year. So you have five or six opportunities to move nutrients where you want them.”

The standard time animals stay in a paddock is three days. If all three of those days are sunny, Munsch moves the Shade Haven structure within the paddock daily. “It’s like parking your manure spreader in a place. So if you have a high concentration of animals under there for a good part of the day, you are going to want to move it.”

It’s also wise to move the structure after heavy rains that have saturated the soil. “If the ground is soft, after a couple inches of rain, they are going to beat that little piece of land up pretty bad.”

The nitrogen dilemma

Nitrogen is a typical add to soil by many conventional farmers. Purchasing nitrogen can be expensive. Munsch argues that nitrogen can be added to the soil by encouraging legumes to grow in your pasture. Legumes fix nitrogen from the air. “In fact there is a net positive on nitrogen simply by encouraging legumes to grow on your pasture,” Munsch says. “The economic trade off is legumes for nitrogen, so you don’t have to buy nitrogen, and animals take care of the distribution of nutrients within a paddock for phosphorus and potash and trace minerals, needed to maintain the health of the legumes.”

“On our farm, we have not applied purchased fertilizer to our grazing land in 25 years,” adds Munsch. “This is a product of managing animal distribution and selective out-wintering.”

With dairy cows, who are very susceptible to heat stress, Shade Haven is effective with the distribution of nutrients that keep the pasture healthy and fertile. “The thing that keeps them [dairy cows] in the barn is the shade,” notes Munsch. “By facilitating the animals to spend time in the paddock by providing shade you are moving nutrients out of the barn, out of the lanes, and onto the paddocks.”