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You Do Not Have to Move Cows Every Day

By   /  January 28, 2019  /  9 Comments

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You do not have to move cows every day to build soil health. You don’t always have to stretch polywire to implement rotational grazing. Sometimes you will have to feed hay, and this can be as constructive as it is destructive.

There is a growing trend that I am seeing in “regenerative” agriculture to push the extremes of what you can do with agricultural land management. Personally, I’m excited by the possibilities that are being unlocked using these techniques and by following what these managers are doing, but at the same time I see a more realistic side of it for the average farmer as well (like me).

If you are working a 12-hour shift off the farm, trying to stretch polywire every day may not be feasible. When the wife and baby both get sick at the same time, the cows may get forgotten for a couple weeks. When you misjudge how long that stockpile is going to last, and have to start feeding hay, it is not the end of the world. When you head out on a family vacation for a week, it is ok to feed hay to get your animals through, or to give them a big pasture to graze for the duration.

The key to improvement on a farm is consistent follow through. You have to spend time planning and develop a system that is sustainable for you. Setbacks will happen, but planning ahead can negate the effects of them. Life gets in the way, but you can work around it. You can use permanent fencing to establish a 3-5 day rotation fairly easily. This will allow you to see some pretty good improvements across the board in soil health and cattle management. You can feed hay in the fall which gives less mess and allows you to stockpile fescue for the winter. You can constructively feed hay to spread manure and then reseed a pasture. Maybe a good starting point is to buy hay instead of cutting your own. The management options are endless. You just have to find what system meets your holistic goals, then follow through with it.

As an example of what can happen, here is a before and after picture of a hay-feeding site.


I would rather see someone consistently move cows once a week over the course of five years than to burn out after year two by trying to move polywire every day, and rent the farm out to croppers. I would rather see someone feed hay in a “sacrifice” lot over trying to “utilize” all the grass on their farm through the winter and get left with nothing to start with in the spring. What may seem like a mediocre management system to one farmer might be far more advanced than another.

It may take you 5 years to achieve what some people are getting in two, but you have to remember that you are playing the long game here. The decisions we are making today will have the greatest impact not on us, but on the next generation. Once you embrace this mindset, it opens up a different view of management options.

There is a quote I read the other day that reads along the lines of “Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a month. We overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade.” This is of utmost truth to the field of agriculture. It can be frustrating at how slow things happen, but then you look back over the last five, or ten, or twenty years of management and suddenly you are light years ahead of where you started.

This week’s Classic by NatGLC by John Marble has some more information for you as you figure out how often you should move your herd.

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About the author

My name is James Matthew Craighead. In 2011 my wife, Amanda, and I established LearnGrowInspire Farms, or LGI for short. We have a forage based cow calf operation as well as a small greenhouse. We also run a few sheep, and do some custom top hogs. We also assist our parents on the day to day operations of their farms as well. I work for our local soil conservation district, and my wife teaches agriculture and chemistry at our local high school. In 2017 we welcomed a baby girl, Ember Kate, into our our life.

9 Comments

  1. Rob Havard says:

    Excellent advice. Very similar to how we operate.

  2. Tom Krawiec says:

    You are so right James. There are more ways than one to accomplish your goals, as long as certain principles are adhered to. In terms of grass management, these principles are graze time, recovery time, & the growth curve. A grazier must get a handle on these three principles first. Damage to your grass will not bring a person closer to their goals. It takes them further away. Graze periods that are too long, recovery times that are too short or too long hinder the attainment of long term viability if that is part of a person’s goal. Often we don’t notice how much it hinders us because clipping a few blades of grass when our animals stayed in a paddock four days, though the grass grew enough in three days to be bitten again is hardly noticeable.

  3. Paul Sharpe says:

    The advice is very practical, reminding us to be flexible in management. I did not understand the second “after” photo which looked like a crop of sorghum, seeded right to the bottom of a drainage ditch. The trees in the background were different from the trees in the “before” picture. Was this the same location?

    • James Matthew Craighead says:

      The pictures were taken in the same 7 acre field, from slighly different angles. It was sown in sudex for grazing. What you are seeing that looks like a ditch is actually the path i used traversing it on my atv(it is in a low spot, but not a ditch). I let it get about 7 feet tall before I grazed it.

  4. Joan Schleh says:

    We run 15 Highland Cattle on leased 15 acres. Our area has very wet winters so we must use a sacrifice area and feed wrapped round bales in winter. We do rotational grazing the rest of the year through 7 permanent fields and one large field divided with poly wire. We move our cows every 5-7 days. We have been doing this for 10 years The grass is thick and lush here naturally and we have seen improvement in the quality over time even though we run our cows very heavily with each field being grazed up to 4 times in a season. Winter rest and moving the cows allows us to utilize this land far more than if they were just left on full time like I see so many neighbors do. Thanks for your helpful articles. Keep it up!

  5. Curt Gesch says:

    Thank you for the refreshingly uncommon sense.

    I think the tendency of all of us is this: once we’ve figured out what for us is the perfect system, we expect others–if they have any sense ! –to adopt it. This is probably due to a surfeit of zeal rather than any intent for world domination.

    On the other hand, zeal is a wonderful thing, in grazing management or anything else.

  6. Well said James.
    AEspo’s “The Hare & the Tortoise” holds true for all times. Find your turtle pace and be consistent.
    “The race is not always to the swift.”

  7. emily f macdonald says:

    Thank you for this article. It was encouraging!

    It is very easy to let the optimal be the enemy of the good.

    Your before and after photos are especially good.

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