Focusing on to two basic concepts is the best way to become a successful grazier: Graze Period and Recovery Period. The Graze Period is the time animals are left in a paddock. The proper graze period ensures you get the most out of your forage without allowing your animals to re-graze new growth. The Recovery Period is the time it takes a plant to re-grow once it has been grazed. As the name implies, a plant should have enough time to fully recover before being grazed again.
To these two concepts I add “The Magic of Thirteen.” It’s a number that makes it easy to choose good Grazing and Recovery Periods.
Determining your Graze Period the HM way
When learning how to graze, I was taught in my Holistic Management (HM) course that you first had to know your recovery period. Once you decide on the recovery period, you then count the number of paddocks you have, subtract one paddock because the animals are always grazing in one paddock, then divide the recovery period by the number of paddocks that are resting. Here is an example:
If you have 15 paddocks, that means 14 paddocks are resting (remember the animals are grazing in one paddock). If your Recovery Period is 40 days, you then divide 40 days by 14 paddocks which gives you an average of 2.8 days in each paddock. Since 0.8 days is a bit difficult to deal with, let’s round that up to three days per paddock. Using that information you can then go to your grazing chart and plan out the moves around the ranch.
You may notice that using this method is pretty easy math and pretty easy to complete a grazing chart. I still use this method after more than twenty years of filling out grazing charts.
But how do you determine the recovery period?
The problem with the method above, though, is how does a person determine an adequate Recovery Period?
If your Recovery Period is too long you will end up grazing Stage Three grass which is lower in nutritional value. If your Recovery Period is too short you will be grazing grass that hasn’t had a chance to replenish its roots and leaf volume and you risk damaging it. Certainly you could ask an expert grazier or Ag Extension agent in your area, but they will only give you an average for the area, not the Recovery Period for your land. Further, their recommendation might be based on their own grazing goals and those may not be the same as yours.
My grazing goal each year is to stock pile high quality, high volume grass for late fall/winter grazing. To do this, I need to keep grass in a vegetative state the whole growing season. I call this the Sweet Spot. The Sweet Spot is when 15-20% of plants in a paddock have gone to Stage Three and the rest are still in Stage Two. Basically I want most of the forage to be in late Stage Two growth.
To determine a Recovery Period that allows me to keep grass in the Sweet Spot, as well as a proper Graze Period, I’ve developed a method of “asking” my animals to tell me, along with “The Magic of Thirteen Paddocks.”
I have discovered, through serendipity, that using the Graze Period and thirteen paddocks gives me the correct Recovery Period. For some reason, thirteen paddocks is the magic number. I don’t know how it works out that way and I don’t know if there is a mathematical theorem to support it, I just know from experience that it works. But ti only works if you’ve first determined the Graze Period for your land under your current heat, moisture, and sunlight conditions.
Here’s how I do it.
To find out what my Graze Period is at a new property, I first select a paddock that I can strip graze. I look for a paddock that I can easily run a poly-wire from one permanent fence to another that has enough forage for 5-7 days of grazing, and has access to water at only one end. If you don’t have a paddock with enough forage for that many days, just use a smaller group of animals for the few days of the experiment.
Once I have picked out the ideal paddock, I set up the first break (strip) with enough forage to graze the animals for one day. You are going to have to estimate the amount of forage required, but don’t get stressed, just do your best because if you are off you can always adjust the next day. I then let the animals into the first break and let them graze. The second day I do the same thing. There is no back fence because the animals have to walk through the first break to get to water. On the third day I once again do the same thing. Here, though, the animals have to walk through both the second and the first break to get to water.
I follow this pattern until I see the cattle stop in the first break to graze. In our area, during May and June, the animals usually stop in the first break on day four, which means my Graze Period is three days. The Graze Period is three days because there is enough new growth by day four that the animals can take a bite of new growth. You probably already understand this is a BIG NO-NO!
Your Graze Period will change as conditions change. As an example, in 2021 our spring started out normal so I used a normal Graze Period for that time of year, which is three days. By mid-June we were very dry and unusually hot. When I did the strip graze test again, the animals didn’t stop in the first break until day six. That meant my graze period was five days.
I share this example to make the point that your Graze Period will change as conditions change. Interestingly, that fact is rarely acknowledged. What is widely discussed, though, is that Recovery Period changes as conditions change. However, to be a successful grazier, both Recovery Period and Graze Period must be respected. The system doesn’t work if one or the other of these concepts is violated.
Now here’s the math using my thirteen paddocks.
Once I have my Graze Period identified I can then determine the Recovery Period using the HM method I discussed earlier. To do this though, I assume each herd has thirteen paddocks to graze. Therefore, if the graze period is three days, then the Recovery Period is thirty six days. Let me demonstrate:
13 paddocks – 1 paddock = 12 paddocks
(Remember the animals are in one paddock, which leaves 12 paddocks resting).
12 paddocks X 3 days = 36 days of recovery*
*This is virtually the same number of days it took me several years to discover through trial and error. Who knew?
What if I have more than thirteen paddocks?
Now that the Recovery Period is established, I employ the HM method to determine the number of days in each paddock when I’m dealing with more than thirteen. To explain this better, let me share an example where a herd has twenty paddocks to graze, but take note, Graze Period is a maximum time frame not a minimum:
20 paddocks – 1 paddock = 19 paddocks resting
Recovery Period: 36 days
36 days Recovery divided by 19 paddocks = 1.9 days (round up to 2 days)
In this example, the average time in each paddock will be two days. That does not mean each paddock must be grazed for two days. In fact, some paddocks may be grazed for one day while others may be grazed for three days. The important point is that no animals go back into the first paddock until 36 days has elapsed and no paddock had animals grazing for longer than three days. Here the concepts of Recovery Period and Graze Period have not been violated.
Here’s a little more about the Magic of Thirteen
I have spent a lot of time trying and testing out various grazing methods. Discovering that thirteen paddocks helps determine an accurate Recovery Period was a fluke. Through trial and error I had already established the Graze Period and Recovery Period for my area. The lucky part came when I took over a pasture that had thirteen paddocks. Half-way through that growing season I realized the numbers worked out evenly on my grazing chart. I was surprised by how simple it was to plan out my grazing rotation.
Since that discovery, I have tested out my theory several times with the same positive results. In hind sight, I wish I would have known about the Magic of Thirteen when I first started. Thirteen paddocks is where I could have started to learn how to graze. Instead, I was concerned with plant species, how much forage each paddock produced, soil types, bugs in the cow pats, etc.; it was overwhelming! Yes those things are important and interesting, but those discoveries could have come after I learned how to keep my grass in the Sweet Spot.
If you have been following my writing, you know I want things to be simple. Thirteen paddocks is simple and it doesn’t matter the paddock size, what forage is growing, or anything else for that matter. All that is required is you know how to do simple math and your own a grazing chart. Once you have those two items handled, get grazing, the rest will follow.
A note from your editor, Kathy:
This is an example of what you’ll find in Tom’s new book, “Ranching Like a 12-year-old: Ranching that is simple, easy and fun.” You can read my review and check out the table of contents here. There are also some reviews from readers here. If it sounds like something for you, you can order it directly from his website here.