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How Do You Know When It’s Time to Move the Cows?

By   /  January 18, 2016  /  1 Comment

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Editors’ Note: This is part 3 of a series on Jay and Krista Reiser’s pilot project to use mob grazing on a larger landscape in North Dakota.  Here are links to the other two articles in the series:
Mob Grazing on 2700 Acres in North Dakota
Setting Up Fencing and Water for Mob Grazing on 2700 Acres

When Jay and Krista Reiser couldn’t find the answers they needed about the possibilities of mob grazing on large landscapes like their 2700 North Dakota ranch, they decided to try it for themselves and share the information with the rest of us.  In addition to figuring out fencing solutions that worked for them, they also had to figure out “When is it time to move the cows?” What they learned over the course of their 2 year North Central SARE funded project is that it depends on your goals, the weather, and what the cows need.

Adjusting the Trample to Graze Ratio

One of their goals was to improve soil health. They thought that a mob grazing strategy with rotation, rest, and better distribution of manure and urine could reinvigorate the soil, improve forage quantity and quality and provide drought resistance. They hoped to use the trampling effect we’ve all heard and read about as part of this process.

As they watched their cattle and how they responded to different fencing systems, they learned that how they fenced changed the ways that animals moved as well as the trample to graze ratio.  In the 1 minute video excerpt below from a North Central SARE Farmer Forum presentation, Jay describes what he saw happening. He shows how the larger paddocks with no back fence saw more grazing and the smaller cells saw more trampling. Knowing this could help you when you’re thinking about your animal impact goals and how to achieve them. He also describes what you might expect as you’re training your mob to move through gates opened by batt latches.

Here’s the link for our tablet readers.

One thing he doesn’t mention here is that the cattle were also trained to ATV tracks. Jay typically drove his 4-wheeler along a new fence line to knock the grass away from the polybraid. The 4-wheeler tracks also served as a “warning zone” to let cattle know they were approaching the fence.

Wet vs. Dry, Hilltops vs. Lowlands

Another thing to consider when timing herd movements from paddock to paddock is how different plants respond to trampling, and how moisture and topography affect the results. In this short excerpt, Krista talks about what they learned about the forage on their ranch.

Here’s the link for our tablet readers.

If you’d like to watch their full 45-minute presentation video, head over here.

Pugged PastureWeather was also a concern. Too much rain when cattle were in a small paddock could cause pugging. Fortunately, rest can restore this damage as well. But to prevent this from happening, the Reisers paid close attention to the weather and let the herd out into larger pastures if storms were threatening.

Healthy Stock

In addition to improving the soil and forage health, Jay and Krista were also providing forage for cattle and deciding how much pasture to give them on a daily basis is no easy thing and requires a trained eye. Jay said their best indicator of how well they were doing was often the animals themselves. If they were content and not bellering, they had enough feed. They checked manure for indications that the cattle were getting a good balance of protein and energy and added a straw bale occasionally when runny manure showed too much protein in the diet. Dry/brown grass in pasture could also serve the same purpose.

Because sugars are higher in grasses after a morning of photosynthesis, the Reisers tended to move cattle in the afternoons, but as the summer heated up, this didn’t work as well. Instead of heading into the next paddocks when the batt latch gates opened at 2:00 and 4:00 p.m., the cattle sometimes headed to water at noon and stayed there until it got cooler before heading to the next pasture. Jay and Krista adjusted by moving cattle in the morning and then in the evening, working with the times the animals would naturally graze.

Gut fill was also an important indicator of whether or not animals were getting enough to eat. The picture below shows where you’d look to check gut fill. This cow has poor gut fill because the picture was taken the day the cows had been worked and had spent 8 hours in a corral before being turned back out to pasture.

Gut fill 1

Here’s a picture of what Jay wanted his cattle to look. This cow’s rumen full.

Full Rumen

He describes this picture as indicating that it’s time to move the cattle to a new paddock.

TimetoMoveGutfill

Combining all these factors to get the result you’re looking for is not easy. Coming up in the last article in this series Jay and Krista will discuss the benefits and some of their frustrations. Stay tuned!
Here are the rest of the articles in this series:

Mob Grazing on 2700 Acres in North Dakota

Setting Up Fencing and Water for Mob Grazing on 2700 Acres

Mob-Grazing on Large Landscapes – What You Might Expect

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

1 Comment

  1. Great article – thanks for sharing! I’ve shared it on my Facebook site.

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