Here is a link to a June 2013 article SRF wrote about their journey of improving their old field into cow pastures: http://spiritedrose.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/pursuing-pastures/
Rotational Grazing (Updated November 2013)
WHAT is rotational grazing?
- Cuts one large field into smaller sections, generally divided by use of electric or permanent fencing.
- Cows are rotated at intervals, usually every 12 hours up to every few days, depending on ratio of animals per acre and quality of land. Other animals (such as heifers, pigs, chickens, or goats) may follow to “clean up” the pastures by eating what the primary animals do not.
- Provides new pastures on a regular basis throughout the season.
- Minimizes impact of large animals on soil and plants.
- Maximizes the quality of pasture and quantity of pasture growth.
- New Zealand and Australia work heavily by seasonal, grass-fed diets for their ruminants. Therefore, they need to look for the best management for their pastures. Read more here:
- It’s a cheap, healthy source of feed! Grass = free and doesn’t require expensive supplements. Most people with livestock have land, and pasturing allows for a lot of use from that land space.
- Cuts down on manure handling – cows have a lot of manure, and pasturing lessens the stress of manure handling, plus keeps your barns cleaner, less smelly, and lessens fly populations.
- Cow psychology: Cows always love to get to that greener grass on the other side of the fence!
- To make sure the animals eat up each section, rather than eating down some areas too much and not touching other areas – equally disperses use of field.
- Pasture season can expand dramatically because cows thoroughly eat each section. Studies show that highly managed land can increase in productivity from 2.5 acres per cow down to as little as .5 (one half) acre per cow!
- Maintaining field height limits and reduces growth of weeds by cutting the heads of weeds before the seeds can develop and spread.
- Cows like to make paths and they lay down a lot. The alley that separates each lot suffices as their main “path” and an area for a central water trough. Cows can move in and out of the barn easily. An alley also keeps them from regularly laying in the same spots, which kills the grass underneath and causes dead spots.
- Our cows prefer to sleep in the barn in their freestalls at night except when the weather is unusually hot, then we pasture in the P.M. and let them sleep during the day in the freestalls with a fan blowing.
HOW is it done?
- You can have your soil tested to help you determine what to add to the pastures. Ask your local feed store, labs, or extension office to find soil testing supplies. Soil tests for pH and nutrient levels to determine if/what your fields are deficient in (such as zinc, selenium, etc.) and what you might have to supplement onto the fields or in your cow’s feed. Also, make sure you know what kind of soil you have: loam, clay, sand, etc. Then you can know how your soil will handle rain, drought, and other factors in nature and can help you find the best grasses to suit your climate.
- Assess your fields to determine if the plants are suitable to pasturing or if you need to till/seed in new plants. Peaceful Valley company has good information on picking pasture plant varieties: http://groworganic.com/organic-gardening/articles/how-to-choose-the-right-pasture-seed
- Make a diagram of your field(s) and come up with a plan to divide the acreage. Consider how many animals you have and how large the sections should be to provide enough room to move around without being crowded. Look for a place where permanent path can be made. An ideal footing is bark chips. The last thing you want is deep mud or muck for a cow to have to walk through. Try to find one common alley way and the least number of gates effective.
- Keep a trough in the alley so cows can access water regardless of the pen they are in. In our fields, each section had a gate/opening. Keep the trough closest to the barn and open the gate to their pasture and swing it over so it blocks anything further up on the alley. That way, cows are limited to going into the one field or being in the alley at the water trough. Always, always, always offer lots of fresh water.
- Be sure to have a gate at the entry of the bark lane so that the cows cannot head back to the barn until you want them to. (Or back to the field before they’ve been milked. It’s no fun chasing a runaway cow!)
- Try to offer shade in some form for each pen. Some farms grow trees throughout the pastures, at least one tree per pasture. Then they put up a simple two log fence around the tree to keep the cows from actually eating the tree (and yes, they will!!)
- Choose a rotation schedule that works well for your field. For our dairy, it worked well to let the cows out between milkings. On hot summer days, the cows stayed in the cool barn during the day and pastured overnight in the shade for cooler weather. The rest of the season (fall and spring for most of us) cows do well pasturing in the day time to get sunshine and Vitamin D and fresh air and bed down in the barn at night to sleep.
- Watch the weather. If a storm is coming, the cows will huddle up in the alley or the field and will likely be standing up, acting somewhat agitated. They need to be brought back to the barn in that case. If the heat becomes too much, the cows will stop pasturing and will again want to come back to the barn. Sometimes, a run-in shed can be built in the pastures (like you see at horse farms), but for many, that extra cost is not as feasible as just bringing the cows back to a permanent barn dwelling.
- Caution: On new spring pasture, only let the cows out for an hour or two and gradually increase the amount each day. Sudden change can cause bloat and should always be avoided. You can also choose to feed hay to supplement pasture. For example, if the cows have been in for the evening, you can milk them and then let them back to the barn for an hour or so to eat some alfalfa before heading them out to pasture. If your fields are limited, this can be helpful to prevent overgrazing.
- A brush hog is your best companion. Use the highest setting (perhaps 8-10 inches high) and cut the grass on a regular basis. If you start seeing tall bunches not getting eaten, the grass needs cut. If the grass is growing too fast and you don’t have enough animals out to consume it, then you might just need to cut the field to bring it down to a more desirable level. Try to not ever let the grass get much over a foot high. If the grass gets seed heads or grows really tall, you will be limiting any further growth for the season. Plus, shorter grass has a higher nutritional value, so your cow will be getting more out of her pasturing.
- Spring or fall Harrowing scratches the surface (allowing seeds to make contact with earth) and breaks up old cow pies. Rotating chickens through the pasture works similarly.
- If your pasture has DUNG BEETLES/FLIES, they are beneficial insects (ours are a fuzzy yellowish orange colored flies) that help break down the manure quickly. They also eat eggs and parasites, reducing disease. Your chickens will eat them, but then you get the benefit of the chickens breaking down the manure piles, so either way breakdown occurs quickly so the pasture can be reused more quickly and dead spots do not develop from big stationary cow pies. http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/dungbeetle.html
- Even with rotation, you may not have enough pasture to last the year. If this is your situation, then prepare in advance by limiting pasture times and supplementing with hay. Overgrazing can cause serious long term damage to pastures. A little extra hay and some “down time” in the barn can save your fields from becoming depleted. If your grass gets below a few inches tall, it’s time to remove the animals until that area has grown back to 4-6 inches tall at least.
- Consider whether irrigation is going to be necessary. If you have the ability to water your pastures, this both improves production significantly and can keep your grass healthy during stressful weather or as it goes dormant into wintertime. If nature does not provide rain, one or a few good waterings at the end of the season can protect plants from frost during the winter months.Check with your local extension office if you are concerned about irrigation rules in your county.
- On rough or stony ground, apply composted manure and harrow in the fall (or in the spring, harrow then apply fertilizers). Re-seed a legume x grass mix and harrow to cover seeds. Keep stock off until plants are well established. This can more than double yield. (Case study: We are now working on a spot just like that. We applied layers of compost over the summer and watered frequently. This fall we build a temporary paddock for our breeding pair of pigs. They will spend the winter digging up knapp weed and turning the compost into the ground. Next spring we will harrow and re-seed.)
WHAT plants are best for pastures?
- Clover: Clover is a favorite plant for cattle. A pasture can have 40-50% legume growth for optimum nitrogen fixing (which means the plants actually pull nitrogen out of the air and “fix” it into the ground via the root system. The cow eats the nitrogen-fixing legumes and the manure helps return more nitrogen back the ground. Clover has a crown root system that is hearty and helps prevent erosion. The low laying crop resists trampling and wind damage. Clover reseeds itself, is long lasting, and is an easy keeper, working in warm, cool, dry, or wet conditions. We have used the Ladino and Alsike varieties. Pick a variety based on your type of soil, moisture levels, local availability of seed, and animal needs. White clover can be added to a field without tilling. If you know a rainstorm is coming, you can clip the field, seed in clover, and soon you will have a great addition to your pasture!
- Fescue: Persistent growth throughout the pasture season. Soft and palatable. We used the Alta variety.
- Timothy —-> Slower maturing than other grasses, such as orchard grass. Even when older, it is more palatable than other grasses. Does well in different climates.
- Local grasses: Depending on your area, a number of different local grasses grow. Contact your local extension agent to identify the different grasses in your pastures.
- We personally do not recommend rye or orchard grass for pasture because of their tendency to mature and head out too quickly. Early pastures are good, but require stringent management, which most small farms are not set up for.
WHAT plants should I use in hay fields?
- Alfalfa: Best protein source for cows, and reduces the need for grain
- Orchard grass: When cut at a young stage, orchard grass makes very nice hay with alfalfa.
- Our favorite local hays are: 1st and 3rd cutting dryland alfalfa and 2nd cutting alfalfa x orchard grass mix.
- Our local season makes the “best” cuttings of hay during 1st: early June, 2nd: mid July and 3rd: late August or early September. Find out when your area has the best seasons. Then look for pre-bloom alfalfa, hay that has not been rained on, and properly cured (dried) to avoid mold.
- When seeding a new field, add oats to harvest first. They grow quickly and protect the other plants, also reducing weed growth. Makes an excellent supplemental feed, especially when cows are out on spring pastures.
Reading the seasons:
Grazing depends on sunshine and rain and temperature.
Spring: Generally wet, pastures start out slowly, then boom in growth as the weather warms up and dries out. Watch how long the cows stay out each day. Also watch out for runny manure. Milking in the parlor was always “fun” come spring time!! (haha) You may have to rotate more frequently or cut the grass to keep it in the 4-6 inch range.
Summer: Lots of sunshine keeps the grass growing well with lots of nutrition, IF rain/sprinklers can keep the pastures sufficiently moist. Watch out for sunburn on the cows’ udders! Try to keep each field equally eaten. We have one wet field that can be pastured twice as often as the drier fields.
Fall: Declining growth, cooler weather, more rain. Some years, where irrigation can become critical. This is the time to monitor fields to prevent over-pasturing, which stunts plant growth and can cause increased parasite load in cows. Deworm cattle heading into the winter season.
Winter: Don’t bemoan a resting period – your healthy spring pasture will reward you!