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Reader Question – Should I Continue Rotational Grazing When the Grass Dries Up?

By   /  September 18, 2017  /  17 Comments

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Hello, On Pasture Community!

Do you have a question you’d like the On Pasture Community to weigh in on? Send us an email!

We have another question from one of your fellow-community members. We all have this issue of grasses going dormant for part of the year, so we bet you’ve got some experience and some suggestions for Pete:

I have a 40-acre ranch in California, in the Sierra foothills below Yosemite. I also do rotational grazing with cattle using electric fencing and I move the cattle around in the winter and spring, using small paddocks, giving the grass a chance to recover.

What I’m not sure about is what to do when the grass dies (it dries up by early June and stays that way till Nov/Dec). At that point I know there’s a lot less protein & nutrition in the grass, so I’ve been supplementing with alfalfa. But the main thing I wonder about is whether there is any point in continuing the rotational grazing once the grass dies, since I know the grass will not recover for many months!

I’ve had trouble finding information and guidance about this issue which I would call “[whether to continue] rotational grazing during summer in a temperate climate. Your suggestions and links to articles would be appreciated.

Thanks a lot.

Pete

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Thanks for reading and for answering questions for your fellow community members!

Kathy and Rachel

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  • Published: 3 months ago on September 18, 2017
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  • Last Modified: September 15, 2017 @ 3:34 pm
  • Filed Under: The Scoop

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.

17 Comments

  1. Kathy Voth says:

    We had one more comment that didn’t get added. Here you go everyone!

    Hi everyone,

    To add to this discussion, Pete (or anyone else with questions for that matter), look to your local Cooperative Extension office for help. I am the Livestock and Natural Resource Advisor in Stanislaus and San Joaquin Counties and we do have an Advisor covering every county in California. On our annual rangelands in the summer, there is not a benefit to rotational grazing. Our recommendation (and we also work with our NRCS colleagues who would recommend the same thing) would be to graze each pasture to a Residual Dry Matter (RDM) standard them move to the next pasture. The RDM minimum will differ by slope, tree cover, and general area. You can find the Guidelines for for Residual Dry Matter here (http://ucanr.edu/sites/StanLivestock2017/Stewardship_484/Grazing_Management/ ) as well as other publications by the University. If you have invasive grasses such as Medusahead or Barbed Goatgrass, you would definitely want to graze down to the minimum to try and reduce the thatch created by the invasive. Pastures free of invasive you can stockpile to have dry feed to be on while we wait for annual grasses to germinate and start to grow this fall and early winter. Again, if you have any questions, please call your local Cooperative Extension office and talk to a Livestock Advisor. We are all Certified Rangeland Managers and can help provide information specific to our California annual systems.

    Theresa Bechhetti

  2. Bruce Howlett says:

    In your Mediterranean climate, the perennial grasses go dormant during summers but the standing forage can still be decent feed because little is lost to leaching – but don’t expect it to recover and regrow until the rains start. So, the key to summer grazing is to stockpile some of the winter growth. Once your livestock graze a summer paddock, it is finished and the livestock should not return until it rains again. Holistic Management was developed in such a climate, and the ranchers in NM have a similar situation (but with summer rains and winter drought), so you might find something interesting at the Quivera meetings that Kathy notes above. Details vary depending on your particular environment, so consult local experts.

    Bruce Howlett
    USDA-NRCS-VT

  3. Bob Gillaspy says:

    Pete, many of the replies have good information. Rotational grazing is a tool to achieve a result. It needs to be applied based on the current conditions and what is needed to get to the desired condition.
    Annual species react to grazing differently than do perennial species. Annuals will produce seed every year if at all possible. Perennial species will allocate resources to the continuation of the plant first and then what is remaining to producing seed.
    Use rotational grazing during the whole year to manage the plant community (both this year’s and future year’s). Rotations during dormant seasons are useful to reduce/eliminate uneven grazing (hot spots and ungrazed areas).
    Please contact your local NRCS range specialist for local, site specific advice.

  4. Patrick Tobola says:

    It depends on several things. The real question you should be asking is “Are my currrent grazing management practices moving me toward achieving my goals given the resources I have?” You will have to spend some time and effort learning about current knowledge on grazing practices and the effects they have on the land, plants, microbes, livestock, and wildlife. You will also need to spend some time and effort learning how to identify what you have in terms of natural resources like “Do I have primarily annual cool season grasses that die in the summer or do I have perennial warm season grasses that are going dormant due to lack of rainfall?” Then after becoming a little informed, you can develop some specific goals for your operation. You may decide that you want to promote establishment of warm season perennials so that you can keep animals year round and the animals can graze without supplementation for a longer time for the year. The possibilities are endless so you really need to have some specific goals in mind and then you can determine if a specific management practice is moving you toward achieving your goals. Holistic Management by Allan Savory is the most complete book that covers all theses topics. It’s not easy to read but worth the effort. I haven’t seen any specific literature on managing cool season annuals as the primary forage source.

  5. Alice says:

    Request assistance from your local NRCS pasture and rangeland specialist. They can advise about the best management for the species you have, and how they perform in your climate. In general, grazing will keep that manure being spread as much as possible, BUT the key is to not graze lower than the recommended residual heights (“stop-grazing” heights) for the key species. Rotate to new ground in accordance with that target height, then keep them off until it recovers. When or if you run out of graze, confine to a sacrifice pasture or feedlot, and provide feed until forage recovers to target “start-grazing” height.

  6. KAREN says:

    I have wondered about this also and although I am in a subtropical climate we still have a dead grass season at least of the perennial varieties. Last winter we were in a severe drought and I left several pastures unused all winter, while rotating the cows on some poorer areas with a hay roll for each grazing section. I found that much of the best spring pasture was in those winter grazed areas. I had expected just the opposite! I believe the soil, its microorganisms, and the remaining grass roots must have preferred the extra organic matter and fertilization. I will surely rotate them through all the pastures this winter.

  7. Jess Jackson Jr says:

    My opinion for California where it is green in winter and brown in summer with annual grass ranges in many areas. Keep rotating anyway – well that is the answer for anywhere. Keeping manure and urine distributed, letting cattle do what comes naturally and more makes sense. The caveat is to not let the girls overgraze the leftovers. Please leave at least 3-4 inches of stubble for soil health. The little bit of shade matters for keeping soil temperatures a little cooler. Check NRCS for the CSP program that allows grazers to send in manure samples to check for diet quality (nutbal). It can help guide you about how much alfalfa or other supplement to feed.

  8. KC Long says:

    Hello Pete, I think you need to visit USDA-NRCS field office in your location. I am sure they will have grazing specialist to help you. Looks like your grass die early. I assume you don’t get much rain that is why it die early. If not maybe you need to plant new grass that can grow from spring to fall.

    Rotational grazing is a very good idea but since you don’t have grass you end up doing rotational feeding with hay (alfalfa). By doing that you can call it a rotational feedlot. Rotational feedlot sound like a good idea too, but will it still be a good idea when doing it in your pasture land?

    One of the thing you do in rotational grazing is to give your each paddock enough rest so the grass can grow. Rule of thumb is 28-30 days rest with normal rain fall. The question is do you give your paddock enough days of rest? Now that you supplement with feeding but rotate them, do you still give the same amount of days for your paddock to rest like the way you are grazing them?

  9. Kyle Farmer says:

    You are right Pete, it is hard to find grazing information specific to California’s Mediterranean climate. I was in Idaho in 2015, talking about drought, and mentioned that we had received something like 35 inches of rain. “That’s not a drought!” they said, some of whom ranch on land where 7 inches is a good year. “All of that fell in January and Feb.” Their jaws dropped. “No rain in the summer?” What!?”

    If I were you I would not assume that yours is a purely annual range. If you do, the assumption will prove itself true. Rotating on a pattern through the dry summer, pretending the you’re in Tennesee average 4 inches of rain per month year-round, will not allow the perennials to make it summer drought either. The native ungulates would have abandoned your ranch in the summer for the tule swams we know call farms and cities. And/or would be munching on perennial grass stems which cure much differently than annuals.

    Also don’t forget about the other reasons you are rotating your herd. Breaking the parasite life cycle. Minimizing walking distance to water. Ease of checking the herd. Managing for thatch cover (key in our climates where early fall germination is life and death). Spreading compost more evenly when you feed that alfalfa. You are also keeping your ladies electric fence trained.

    Maybe larger paddocks in the dry season will make sense, but I’d say keep those cows a’movin.

  10. Coastal Prairie Farms says:

    Hi Pete.
    I think this might be one of your most important times to rotational graze. I’d recommend strip grazing this dried material. I’m assuming it’s somewhat stockpiled so if this is true the greater utilization of it the more you save in supplements. If you hit it all at once the quicker they travel on it and ruin it….poor utilization. Make them eat it and manage your protein and minerals and save yourself costly inputs.
    CPF

  11. Bart Schilling says:

    Continue rotational grazing. I recommend Jim Gerrish’s book “Cut the Hay Habit”

  12. In our environment (SE Nebraska) we keep moving the herd during the dormant season, through stockpiled forage. We increase utilization rate on the paddock that we do give them. Yes, just a little alfalfa goes a long way to keep the rumen functioning.

  13. mike wallace says:

    I highly recommend: https://holisticmanagement.org/training-programs/distgrazing/
    for growing, and dormant season grazing guidance. Used the Ralph Tate speadsheet for several years for all seasons. Paid for itself several times over, every year.

    • Mark Reynolds says:

      I don’t know how long your current rotation currently is, or what the make-up of your pastures are. However, I would suggest that you continue to rotate your livestock until all of your pastures have been fully grazed. Continuing with a rotation will allow for better utilization and less wasted forage by trampling or contamination with manure or urine. If you are rotating weekly your utilization efficiency will be around 60%. A rotation of every 3-4 days will give you a utilization of about 70%. Rotating daily will give you a utilization rate of 80%. On the other hand, if you stop rotating and allow access to the whole 40 acres, utilization will be 35 to 40%. Your forage will go a lot further if you continue to rotate.

      Once all of the pastures have been utilized and there is still time left in the dry season, I would lock the animals into a confined area and feed hay until you get to the wet season again.

      I don’t know if you have all annual forages or perennial forages, but that shouldn’t matter to maximize the utilization efficiency with rotational grazing. If you only have annuals, you don’t need to worry about the livestock killing the grasses, but this is not a reason to stop rotational grazing.

  14. Martin says:

    IN my opinion , the slower the grass growth rate , the slower the rotation.

    This leaves the grass a better time to recover . A faster rotation also means higher stocking rates too ….. might be a time to lighten off the herd as well , if conditions allow

    • garry wilson says:

      When the grass doesn’t grow you dry lot them you are only killing the grass by the traffic

      • Audrey says:

        I agree. We use sacrifice pastures when it is too wet or too dry to avoid compacting the pasture and feed hay there. Funny though how the sacrifice area really comes back later because of the concentration of manure and hay left behind. If your herd is large enough and you can waste some hay it is ok to continue the rotation. We rarely have enough cattle or good enough quality hay to continue the rotation on our sandy soil in bad weather. We have to out them in the sacrificed area to increase the stocking rate and make them eat the poor quality forages.

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