Home Grazing Management Intensive Grazing – Putting it All Together, Or “Calling the Dance”

Intensive Grazing – Putting it All Together, Or “Calling the Dance”


Editors Note:  This is the 4th in a series provided to us by Dave Scott of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT).  To see all of the articles in the series, click here.  Thanks to NCAT for sharing Dave with On Pasture’s readers.  We’re sure you’d love to know that NCAT provides a wealth of information for farmers and ranchers on their website, and you can even call them the phone and talk to an expert!  

PastureDanceI heard on the radio a while ago that old-time barn dancing is making a comeback. It made me think about the structured, moving dance between the two main “partners” in the grazing plan we’re creating for our irrigated pasture – pasture rest and the paddock grazing period.

But before we start calling out any “allemande lefts” or “do si dos,” we have to arrange the dance floor. We have one big field out there that needs to be divided into the many segments, or paddocks. But how many?

The Great Paddock Cipher

The pasture rest period and paddock grazing period work arm in arm to determine the number of paddocks the field must be divided up into. For the mathematicians out there, the formula is:

Number of paddocks =  Pasture recovery period days   + 1
                                 Paddock grazing period days

For those of us who aren’t mathematically inclined, let’s think it through a bit. Say we have been listening in to all of the previous ramblings about the subject (to see all of the articles in the series, click here) and we are convinced (at least tentatively!) that giving the grass a full recovery period is the way to go. We opt for a 31-day rest period and hope to goodness this NCAT dude knows what he is talking about!

In an effort to hold on to some of our own sanity, we elect to move our livestock one day and to go fishing the next. That renders a two-day paddock grazing period. We do the math and figure that we are going to have to cut up that pasture into 15 hunks to graze over the course of our 31-day period.

But wait a minute! From way, way back, college calculus kicks in and we realize that we can’t be grazing the last paddock and resting the first at the same instant. (Anything mysterious is summed up in calculus, right?) Alright then, we’ll divide our field into 16 separate paddocks and call it good.

Here is where your experience comes into play. You know your fields better than anyone, and now you have to improvise. Divide your pasture into eight fields, not necessarily in space, but in time. The divisions will be approximately equivalent areas, but if there is a region that perennially produces less forage than the average acre, assign that field slightly more space.

Next, divide each of those eight fields into two paddocks. You want an equal distribution of 16 paddocks that all take the same time to graze: two days. Don’t worry if you are off by half a day or so – you can make adjustments as you go. This deal is flexible as long as your initial stocking rate is conservative.

Don’t Permanently Fence Me In

Hold on, though. Don’t go out and start building miles of permanent fencing to separate your paddocks! Temporary fencing is what makes intensive grazing possible. The only permanent fencing you really need is perimeter line fencing. In fact, one grazier I know said that he tore out all of his line fences because deer, elk, and moose kept trashing them so bad he figured it was easier to switch than fight.  Line fences do have their advantages, however; it helps keep relations friendly when your out pasture is not your neighbor’s place!

Consider the Stocking Rate of the Field

A portion of the 200 ewes and 320 lambs in one of 21 paddocks.
A portion of the 200 ewes and 320 lambs in one of 21 paddocks. Photo courtesy of Pat Hansen

Ah, stocking rate: perhaps no other topic has as many avenues that arrive at the same conclusion!  There are those who venture out into a field, give it a close scan, and announce,” Yep, this field is good for 3,200 cow days. Divide ‘er up into 16 paddocks, rustle up 100 pairs and move ’em every two days, pardner. You’ll be fine.”

“But wait,” you say. “I’ve got 1,400 pound cows.” (Which in the common vernacular really means 1,500 pound cows, right?). “Well,” the cowman replies, “adjust, man, adjust.”

Sometimes it is nice to adjust from the start. Give yourself a break and figure the true weight of your cows, not what you wish they were. Once you have that weight, calculate what 3.25% of that weight is.

That amount  is equal to the daily dry matter consumption of your average cow calf pair, all summer long, plus a little slack. If you are running yearlings, use 3% of their body weight as their dry matter consumption. Keep in mind that the stockers are gaining (hopefully 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per day) and that their weight and the associated dry matter intake need to be updated every two weeks. For yearlings,  you either will have to market some heavies or find additional pasture in the midsummer  if the grass cannot keep up. Sheep have to be handled a little bit differently. (If you want to talk about the differences, call me on the ATTRA help line at 1-800-346-9140 or email me using the “Ask an Ag Expert” feature on the ATTRA website at www.attra.ncat.org.)

How Fast Does the Grass Grow?

To complete the stocking rate calculation we also need to know the production level of the grass at different months of the grazing season. Here, in the Rocky Mountain West, we can generally figure 65 to 75 pounds of dry matter production per day if we are moving animals every other day. Naturally, as with everything else, it varies from valley to valley and ranch to ranch. If you figure a 120-day summer pasture season, that works out to 4.5 tons of dry matter production to the acre. Add another 2,000 pounds per acre of fall growth and the yield is 5.5 tons per acre. If you are transforming a hay field to pasture, you can convert to pounds of dry matter production per day easily. Almost always, you will equal or surpass hay production with two-day paddock grazing periods.

Now we can figure out our initial stocking rate. Here is the formula:

Stocking rate = Dry matter production rate x total acres
                      Dry matter Intake of Livestock

Irrigated Pastures and Intensive Grazing Systems that WorkFor an example of that calculation and for more information on stocking rate details, please see the ATTRA publication, Irrigated Pastures: Setting Up an Intensive Grazing System that Works on the ATTRA website.

Be Prepared and Keep A Weather Eye Out

Let’s go gather up the pairs and put them out there. Be conservative – it’s always easier to add cattle than to have to take them away. Just try sorting out 10 pairs in an open field! For first time intensive graziers, it’s a good idea to cut the turnout cows by 10 to 15%. This gives you some wiggle room, and it never hurts to leave some grass out there. It will virtually all get eaten eventually, and what does not will get trampled in. Trampled grass gives the soil microbes something to do and feeds your soil. Remember: we are not haying. We are grazing.

As with all things biological, and farming in particular, sometimes it doesn’t all go according to plan. We can thank Old Man Weather the most for that, especially in the spring when proper growing temperatures just are not there yet. Other times, your irrigation may go down for some reason. That’s OK, though.  We just work in some “out” feeding to take care of the bumps in the trail. Outs can be in the form of either pastures that have been set aside or supplemental hay feeding.

It’s best to plan for about seven to 10 days of emergency feeding. If you find that you need significantly more than that, your stocking rate is too high for your pasture. Remember that it‘s your dance hall that frames the dance – outs are your tool for maintaining your pasture recovery period throughout the grazing season.

Calculate Where You Have Been

ATTRA NCAT Grazing Calculator
If spreadsheets are a little intimidating and hard to get started with, don’t worry. Dave and his colleagues are working on a little video to take you through it step by step. We’ll let you know when it’s up and running!

We can check that pasture rest period whenever we exit one of our eight fields and enter a new one. If you are running cow calf pairs, a real easy way to do this is to download Grazing Calculator: Extended Cow Calf Pair from the ATTRA website. It’s FREE!

Have yearlings or sheep? We are developing grazing calculators for them too. They should be up and running on the ATTRA web site soon.

These calculators keep track of grazing cycle days (pasture rest periods) and pasture production, both daily and cumulative. They really make you feel like you know just what you are doing out there – because you do! Keep tuned to On Pasture for a Youtube demonstration of the Cow Calf Grazing Calculator. For now, see the ATTRA website address above for guidance on how to use them. It’s simple!

Rewards are Right Before Your Eyes

While you are proudly admiring the sight of your cows on pasture, zoom in for a closer look. Make sure they have the correct amount of rumen fill and their eyes are bright and their ears are alert. Hear the plop? What’s it look like? Is it a nice paddy with the pond in the middle? While you have your eye on the ground, check out the life there. Any worms, beetles ,or bugs? Is there a layer of litter covering the soil? You bet. Life – that is pasture.

You Call the Dance

Well, you have done it. Your cows are out there now, making you money because they are costing you a lot less: much, much less than haying all summer and feeding all winter. The machinery middleman is out of the picture. Watching those cows grab grass makes you feel like you have taken control of your own destiny. It truly is a refreshing feeling. You have built the dance hall, called the dance, and the dance is yours.

For any questions concerning the design and implementation of your intensively grazed pasture, just call!  Dave Scott, ATTRA Helpline  1-800-346-9140

Here are the rest of the articles in this series:

Intensive Grazing on Irrigated Pastures

Setting Up an Intensive Grazing System That Works – Pasture Rest Periods

Paddock Grazing Periods in Irrigated Pastures