Managed grazing is a farming method that recognizes the relationship between agriculture and the environment.
It seeks to nurture the interdependence between the two by rotating livestock through paddocks of high-quality grasses and legumes.
This allows the paddocks to rest and re-grow as needed.
If you’re considering a managed grazing method for your land, here’s what you should know for the greatest success.
1. What is managed grazing?
Managed grazing refers to controlling where and when livestock species graze an area of land.
This method has several advantages over continuous grazing.
Managed grazing typically means rotational (or deferred) grazing, which moves animals through a series of three or more pastures to match the forage available to the animals’ production needs.
We’ll talk about this type of grazing below in more detail.
2. What are the four natural laws of managed grazing?
According to the US Department of Agriculture, there are four natural laws of grazing management.
Here are the basics you should know.
Keep down the shoot, kill the root
Roots help to anchor the plants to the soil.
They provide access to water and nutrients.
When roots are healthy, they enable plants to survive stress from drought, cold, heat, and grazing.
One 1954 study showed that the growth of the grass plant is directly proportional to the root growth.
Every year, one-third of the roots die and must be replaced.
The amount of leaf volume removed has a direct effect on the growth of new roots.
When excessive amounts of top growth are removed, roots aren’t replaced which means the grass eventually dies.
When the leaf area of grass is left at an optimum length, the roots can grow and support additional growth.
If you want to manage your pasture overall, focus on the root systems.
You can do this by implementing a prescribed grazing plan, which helps define the proper degree of grazing use for key forage species.
It can also establish a grazing schedule that alternates two or more grazing units (in other words, managed grazing).
Nature does not like bare ground
Bare ground is soil that lies unprotected.
There are no plants, lichens, moss, litter, standing dead vegetation, gravel, or rocks.
These areas have a greater risk of erosion because water runoff impacts them more than areas with vegetation.
This bare soil has no protection from rain, wind, or sun exposure.
It’s in the best interest of landowners to keep their soil covered physically.
It protects the land from becoming eroded.
Any practice that you can do to increase soil organic matter and biological activity improves stability.
That said, it can take several growing seasons or years to see an increase in organic matter gains.
For this reason, it’s vital to use grazing practices that don’t disturb soil and existing groundcover in the first place.
Disturbing the soil can result in a rapid decline in organic matter, biological activity, and aggregate stability.
Bare soils decrease moisture availability
When land has lots of bare soil, runoff increases dramatically.
This means that less water enters the soil and wind erosion increases.
These problems ultimately result in less productive land because it is less resistant to drought and weeds.
Nature loves well-adapted plants
When given the chance, nature brings back the original, best-adapted vegetation.
For this to happen, the following two elements need to be present.
- The line of no return cannot be crossed
- The landowner must work with nature to allow her to do her job
To let nature do her job, you should follow a good managed grazing plan.
This will increase the profitability of the land and boost drought and weed resistance.
3. What are the two components of a good grazing management plan?
A good grazing plan includes the nutritional needs of livestock and the health of the forage.
4. What are the four keys to grazing management?
There are four basics to grazing management:
Stock rate is the number of animals on a given area of land over a certain period of time.
This is normally calculated in Animal Days per Acre (AD/Ac).
An Animal Day (AD) is the amount of forage required for a single 1,000-pound cow with a calf for one day.
This is equivalent to 30 pounds of air-dry forage.
The livestock forage of different breeds, classes, and/or sizes are all compared to the equivalent of one cow/calf pair.
In any operation, the stock rate must match the available forage.
If an operation isn’t properly stocked, then this can lead to over and/or under-grazing.
Both have bad outcomes.
Over-grazing, in particular, leads to significant long-term degradation and an overall reduction in pasture conditions and potential yields.
Overgrazing can have long-lasting effects that can be both difficult and impossible to rectify.
To determine the stocking rate, you should collect information on overall pasture production and balance the animal numbers with available forage.
Reach out to your local Natural Resources Convention to request assistance in finding your stocking rate.
In this component of grazing management, you should also consider stock density vs. stocking rate.
Stock density is the number of animals grazing a specific unit of area at a single point in time.
Stock density is usually expressed in pounds of animals per acre.
As the pounds per acre of livestock increase, stock density also increases.
Too often, grazing operations don’t consider the impacts of stock density when planning and managing rotations.
You should know that increasing stock density can be highly beneficial.
It improves how evenly pastures are grazed and reduces livestock grazing selectivity.
When stock density increases, animals begin utilizing forage more uniformly with a reduced tendency to ignore some plants while eating more of others.
That said, you should still be careful when increasing livestock density.
Pasture sizes and stock densities must account for numerous factors:
- The size of the area to be grazed
- The amount of grass that’s available
- The number of animals you plan to graze
- The duration each area is grazed
Additionally, when livestock density is increased, animals are bunched together more tightly.
So, you’ll need to monitor them closely to reduce the risk of them removing too much plant material.
That said, when most livestock operations have increased their stock density and decreased the time spent grazing in the pasture/paddock, they’ve seen benefits to overall forage production.
Livestock rotation includes managing when you graze, how long you graze, and how long you allow the area that is grazed to rest and recover before the area is grazed again.
Livestock pick favorites when they graze.
They choose their favorite species and graze harder where those species grow.
This selective grazing behavior is exacerbated when livestock has access to larger grazing areas and are not rotated frequently enough.
Grazing plants will begin to regrow during the growing season.
These plants put a significant amount of energy into leaf growth, which can slow or halt root growth if too much leaf area is removed.
You must work hard to protect growing plants because livestock will often target fresh plants because they are succulent in this phase.
Grazing the fresh regrowth is extremely detrimental to plants, causing the roots to shrink and the plants to die.
If you allow these plants to be grazed immediately, it’s by definition overgrazing.
This is the primary reason that pasture conditions deteriorate.
Most often, the preferred plants will get overgrazed while less desirable plants will get ignored entirely.
As a landowner, you can help prevent overgrazing through managed grazing.
You can rotate your livestock through different paddocks to improve their forage productivity.
This will give your pastures and paddocks adequate time to rest and recover.
Utilization rate is the grazing intensity, which is used to describe how heavily an area is grazed.
For instance, if a plant is grazed as close to the ground as possible, the utilization rate would be 100 percent.
If the same plant isn’t grazed, then its utilization rate would be 0 percent.
Grazing experts often recommend a “take half, leave half” approach whereby animals are only allowed to utilize half the total plant biomass in the pasture.
In an ideal world, every plant would be grazed to reduce its total volume by no more than 50 percent.
Initially, you may think it makes the most sense to graze plants down to the ground.
However, when animals graze more than 50 percent, it halts all above and below-ground plant growth for a period of time.
This slows plant recovery and overall production.
It can also kill preferred forage species and allow them to be replaced with less desirable species.
When you keep plants taller throughout the grazing season and rotate animals regularly, you let plants develop deep roots.
This means they’ll recover faster from grazing and produce far more grass over the course of the season.
Furthermore, light use throughout a paddock permit livestock to receive a diet balanced for protein and energy that is essential for grass fed beef.
Managing your pastures in a way that allows the most possible grass to be produced will benefit you in the long run.
Plant rest and recovery
Once an irrigated pasture or paddock is grazed, you should allow it to rest for at least 30 to 60 days during the growing season.
Dryland pastures and rangelands will require longer rest periods.
The length of rest depends on factors like…
- Plant species
- Utilization rate
- Stocking rate
- Livestock class
You must learn to recognize when your plants have fully recognized and can be grazed once more.
If you’re unsure, the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) can help you consider your options and provide advice.
A good general rule of thumb is waiting until your desirable grass species are at least 8 inches tall.
This normally requires about 30 to 60 days for an irrigated pasture populated with tall-statured plants like orchard grass, tall fescue, meadow brome, etc. during the growing season.
And always keep in mind how the plant roots are doing.
You’ve probably heard the saying “what you see above ground is reflected below.”
This is true!
The amount of leaf material indicates the health and size of the roots below the ground.
If your plants are repeatedly grazed short without having an opportunity to recover, then the roots aren’t getting the nutrients they need.
They will begin to shrink and weaken.
For your plants’ long-term benefit, make sure you give them the time they need to rest and recover.
5. What are the benefits of managed grazing?
Well-managed grazing farms…
Maintain healthy and productive livestock
Produce high-quality nutritious food
Reduce chemical and fossil fuel use
Improve soil, water, and biodiversity resources
Preserve wildlife habitats
Secure a livelihood for farmers and their families
Contribute to local economies
6. How does rotational grazing work?
Rotation grazing uses a schedule that varies depending on numerous factors.
Managers will rotate livestock through paddocks as forage availability permits.
They will move them when animals have utilized the available forages.
Additionally, before moving them, the forages must have reached the appropriate residue height.
This is the amount of forage left that has not been grazed.
7. What is high-stock density (HSD) grazing?
One of the most effective methods of managed grazing is high-stock density (HSD).
You may also hear HSD referred to as MOB grazing or Management Intensive grazing.
To implement this method effectively, you must abide by the four keys to grazing management (stocking rate, livestock rotation, utilization rate, and rest/recovery).
HSD involves concentrating animals into smaller areas (i.e., paddocks) for a shorter amount of time (1-3 days) and consuming 50 percent or less of available forage.
Following grazing, long rest periods (more than 30 days) are provided to allow plants to recover before being grazed again.
By following this type of grazing system, the quality and amount of grass grown can increase substantially over time.
If you’re looking for ways to improve your plant, animal, financial, and soil health, managed grazing is the answer.
This practice involves carefully controlling where livestock feed to protect plants and soil.
Rotating through paddocks to ensure one area of land isn’t overgrazed is a tried-and-true practice that protects your land and provides a sustainable agricultural investment long-term.
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