Most winemakers coddle their vines waiting for the exact time to harvest the grapes to produce that perfect vintage. Tobacco growers are constantly monitoring their crop adding water at the right time to make sure the plants yield that expensive cigar. Orange groves are protected from freezing temperatures to try and make sure whatever type, organic, extra pulp, no pulp or calcium enriched, is on the table come breakfast time at an affordable price. Even the do-it-yourselfer, who is unknowingly competing with his neighbors to have his flower beds alive with color and the highly manicured lawn for people to see as they drive through the neighborhood, brings forth a certain passion that can only be shared between man and the ground he works.
To the outsider, most would say the cowboy's passion is to take care of the animals that walk his pastures. Giving his horse a good rub down and a bite of grain after a hard day's work or making sure the newborns are sheltered from the next storm. These are jobs that, to most, regularly fall under the term “cow hand.”
Real cattlemen show their true colors and don the hat of a “grass farmer.” Not “sodbuster,” but yes, “grass farmer.” Unlike the vineyard, tobacco field and the orange grove that depend on fancy machines to add timeliness and efficiency to the harvest, beef producers depend on that four-legged critter to get the job done. Harvesting forages this way cuts down on the fuel bill and there are no high priced dust collectors waiting to be used one time a year. Growing higher quality forages and using the “beef machines” to harvest them more efficiently should help keep costs down in this era where everything's getting more expensive.
“Rotational grazing will allow for better forage utilization and keeps forage quality more uniform throughout the pasture. Continuous grazing allows for animals to concentrate on one area and for more weed intrusion,” says Dr. Rocky Lemus, Mississippi State University extension forage specialist.
Rotational grazing can make the most of different grasses. Proper management will help utilize forage species, improve stocking rates and make more efficient use of the acreage.
“We are running 300 percent more cattle now, in the same area, than we were when we were continuously grazing. Every year we have improved our forages and increased stocking rates, grazing our native range pastures,” says Bill Jacobs, Jacobs Ranch Sulphur, Oklahoma.
“For the warm season bahia and bermuda grasses, the forage grows better and producers get more gain per unit of land. Producers can increase stocking rates, average daily gain might suffer, but there are more animals per acre,” says Dr. Joao Vendramini, forage specialist, University of Florida Range Cattle Research Center.
The words “rotational grazing” sometimes scare a lot of producers. One it steps away from tradition, and two some producers are not comfortable when it comes to making decisions.
“You have to make decisions with rotational grazing. It's not continuous. Producers have to make the decision when to move cattle,” Vendramini says. “I want to make it clear rotational stocking is not intensive grazing. For instance, if you had one 30 acre pasture and made two 15 acre pastures and rotated cattle back and forth, this is not intensive, you are just moving cattle.”
“I would recommend producers start on a small scale when they start cell grazing. It takes some time getting used to the concept,” Jacobs says. “If you're running 1,000 yearlings, take 200 or 300 head, divide some ground and see if you can adjust to moving cattle.”
“You have to get used to the system. You have to pay more attention to a lot of the smaller details. Initially it will be a little more intense, but cattle will have better performance and there is better forage utilization,” Lemus says. “Once you get a handle on the system, management becomes very easy.”
As cattlemen make the decision to breech tradition, getting started will take some time and investment. However, the initial cost is not the only limitation some producers may face.
“I like solar powered chargers and electric fencing to divide my paddocks. Electric fence is cheaper and faster to put up than some form of permanent fence,” Jacobs says. “Water supply is a big deal. A large density of livestock can foul a stock pond pretty quickly.”
“Electric fence works well for most producers. Sometimes it doesn't work in every situation. Some people want a more permanent fence,” Vendramini says. “Water can be an issue. Design your grazing system to make water accessible.”
The actual design of the grazing system could vary from place to place. Many factors are involved when producers actually divide acreages to rotational graze. Forage type, soil quality and water availability can make the difference for either a really clean system that looks like the drawings in some textbooks or paddocks that vary in size to best utilize available resources.
“There's no way every paddock can be exactly the same size. Producers should adjust grazing time to the number of acres,” Lemus says. “Make sure animals have access to clean water. If pond water is the only option fence the ponds so livestock can drink, but can't get in them. I like to have an isolated water source to keep it clean. Make sure the water source is accessible and animals don't have to walk too far to get a drink. If cattle aren't getting enough water it will affect the amount of grazing.”
“Make life easy on yourself. Try to design paddocks that are relatively the same size. If the paddocks are different sizes adjust the grazing period accordingly. Keep in mind, larger paddocks sometimes don't get grazed as effectively as the smaller ones,” Vendramini says. “Large densities of livestock need to have enough space and it becomes more demanding on the water supply.”
“If you have a 1,000 acre pasture you want to divide: it doesn't mean you have to divide it one third, one third and one third. In large areas, soil quality could be different and some areas grow better forage than others. Fence your pastures according to production ability and adjust the time period you are going to graze each paddock,” Jacobs says. “I like to have two ponds in each paddock. Because I have large densities of livestock, I usually run out of good water before I do grass and have to leave more forage than I want to.”
Once the paddocks have been fenced and water sources identified, management will have to continue evaluation, to make the best use of available forages. By maintaining an efficient system, benefits will come to the pastures and livestock.
“By maintaining forages at a more uniform height, legumes can be incorporated much easier. This helps forage quality, plus puts atmospheric nitrogen back into the soil. We can also over-seed most pastures with small grains to maintain grazing quality,” Lemus says. “As manure breaks down, there will be more efficient nutrient distribution throughout the pasture. Forages that are in the vegetative state recover more quickly, and have better digestibility.”
“Grasses grow better and producers are more efficient harvesting them in a rotational system. As fertilizer prices continue to rise most producers want to fertilize at a minimum rate and get maximum return,” Vendramini says. “If you are managing the system properly and not overgrazing, there will be an increase in the amount of desirable species to compete with weed species, which will soon be eliminated.”
Benefits from this system aren't confined to the health of the pasture and harvesting forages more efficiently. Direct benefits can be seen in reduction of labor costs and benefits to the bottom line.
“I know it saves labor on this ranch. If I was continuous grazing, I would have 12 pastures to check every day. By rotating through 12 paddocks, I only have to check one pasture,” Jacobs says. “We're moving cattle typically every fourth day and I can doctor a lot of cattle on that fourth day. The last ones through the gate are usually the ones that have a problem. I continue to rotate during the winter even though most of my forages are dormant. There are some winter annuals in each paddock cows can take advantage of. If I have to break ice, I only have to do it in one pasture.”
The system can be adapted to different classes of livestock. Special needs will exist with each class, but the bottom line could see significant improvements by adapting management philosophy to rotational grazing.
“You can't rotate cows and calves when the calves are younger than 45 days. If you keep moving cattle, you'll find you're orphaning lots of calves. I changed my breeding season and only turn bulls out for 60 days. This does two things, it makes my calf crop more uniform when it comes time to market them and I can start rotating cattle when the youngest calf is 45 days old,” Jacobs says. “This works best if you can have two calving seasons. You don't lose your investment in a good young cow when she doesn't breed because you can rotate her to the next season. Once you bite the bullet and limit the breeding season, conception rates will usually be in the 90 to 93 percent range. Cell grazing puts a premium on fertility because all the calves have to be 45 days old to rotate the group.”
“You can creep graze animals in this system pretty easily,” Lemus says. “Lightweight calves can graze ahead of the herd to improve gains, therefore increasing profit.”
According to Jacobs, external parasites can also be controlled in a more cost effective manner. “If paddocks are set up right, there should be very little need for fly control,” Jacobs stated. “By the time the larvae hatch, we're four miles ahead of them. They go to the nearest cattle which are usually my neighbors.”
Knowing a little about the psyche of the beef animal may also help producers more readily adapt to the rotational system and preserve pasture quality. “There has been research done involving cattle and a maze. When these cattle were taken away from the maze for more than 60 days they had to learn to find the feed again,” Jacobs says. “Yearlings, in particular, like to walk the fence and ruin part of the pasture. If we keep rotations under 60 days, cattle will remember the boundaries and won't walk the fence.”
It's sometimes hard to read today's cowboy. Most have an extreme affection for the land they are entrusted with and passion exudes from their body when they talk of their livestock. Finding a system that makes them work in harmony will draw direct comparison to the grape grower searching to refine his passion with the perfect vintage.
Rotational grazing systems are kind of like a factory. To be efficient that factory needs a certain number of workers to handle the job. On the other hand, for that worker to be efficient, he requires a certain amount of rest to achieve peek performance. Managed correctly, stocking rates and rest period will determine the success or failure of the rotational system.
“I usually try to design a system that rotates every five to seven days. With warm season grasses, the quality declines very quickly if they aren't utilized. By maintaining these forages in a vegetative state, the quality is much better and they recover more quickly,” Lemus says. “This system allows producers to calculate available forages and how many grazing days they have left. Just because you have a rotational system set up doesn't mean you have to graze all the paddocks. Producers can leave a paddock for an emergency situation or they can bale hay. ”
“Because a lot of people aren't familiar with grasses they want to move every seven days. It doesn't work that way. Decisions have to be made on stubble height, weather and fertilization,” Vendramini says. “There are times of year we have good rainfall and you have to move cattle through the system faster. If the forages get ahead of you, sometimes you can utilize them better by baling hay or stockpiling grasses. Sometimes you need to increase the number of animals. Whatever management strategy you take, you don't want to leave grass and waste it.”
“With native range we need a little more of a rest period than you do with warm season improved grasses. It will take a little time for each producer to figure out what his country can handle and how best to rotate,” Jacobs says. “In periods of limited rainfall, we have to slow down our rotations. When we get more rain and the grass is growing faster we have to move them through more quickly. There are many advantages to cell grazing. Adding efficiency to many different areas, increases my total profit picture.”