Foraging Ahead Through Challenging Times
If there's one thing a cattle producer can count on, it's knowing they're going to face a challenge that's beyond their control.
Whether that challenge is manmade such as high operating costs, or a natural disaster such as a drought – or the combination of the two – each generation of producers deal with their own set of unique challenges.
But it's in the nature of cattle producers to accept their fate and make changes to their individual operations to stay in this business. And it is those exact challenges and the producer's ability to change what they can control that makes each generation of producers more progressive and aggressive in their operation management.
You can't feed yourself out of a drought. Surely one could try, but with current conditions as such, how long could that operation be sustainable, let alone be profitable? Instead, consider taking a different operation management approach to grazing and pasture management, such as rotational grazing. Picture utilizing what is already available: cattle and land, and change the way the two work together to ultimately produce a more efficient, cost-effective and viable operation for the future.
Rotational grazing, or intensive grazing, doesn't have to be overwhelming. It's simply utilizing the cattle and maintaining the land to garner the most efficiency out of an operation. And since producers already know the tendencies of their land and their animals, a little planning and strategy at the beginning will ensure a successful pasture management practice.
The limiting factor for a rotational grazing system is water. Determine the location of the cattle's water source first. Cattle will graze more efficiently if they are no farther than 800 – 1,000 feet from their drinking source.
Next, chart out the grazing area on paper before heading out to pasture. Making a plan of the grazing area ahead of time allows producers to be more efficient and cost-effective in their rotational grazing management. An aerial map of the land is a great place to start to establish paddock sizes based on the location of the water source. If an aerial map is not available, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) may provide this free of charge.
Determining the number of paddocks or the shape of the grazing area is solely up to each producer and their individual operation. Developing a rotational grazing system truly can be as simple as dividing the current grazing area in half.
A great visual example is to picture a pie shape – with the water source in the center of the pie and paddocks arcing out from the water. A rotational grazing system based on this principle allows producers to easily move cattle from one paddock to the next, especially when working alone.
Probably the most important question to ask when deciding the number of paddocks to create is: how long do I want the cattle to graze in each paddock? The more paddocks – the shorter amount of time the cattle will graze. As a general rule, four/five paddocks are quite typical.
It's time to put the plan in motion. For the physical component of rotational grazing – putting up the actual grazing area, producers need nothing more than four tools: an energizer, posts, reels and polywire fencing. One of the great benefits of rotational grazing is flexibility; it may take a couple of rotations to figure out the appropriate size of the individual paddocks, which is why polywire fencing is recommended at the beginning.
Before turnout, plan a quick grazing strategy. Take a look at the grazing area to determine the condition of the plots, availability of forage and how the pasture grows. A simple grazing strategy allows producers to know where to place the cattle in the grazing rotation and to prevent overgrazing. A general rule is to let the cattle eat the best forage first and then move the cattle to where the producer wants the animals to graze next.
How often a producer moves their cattle is based on many factors: geography, climate, season, size of the pasture – and also the number and size of paddocks. The smaller the size of the paddock, the shorter amount of time the cattle will spend in each area. In some parts of the country the cattle may be moved every couple of days, while in other parts, it may be weeks. The best advice is to watch what's happening in the rotational grazing process and make operation management decisions from there.
Regardless of current or future challenges, cattle producers will rise to the occasion. The progressive changes producers implement in their operations now, will continue to drive the success and sustainability of the industry as a whole to the next generation.
- Implementing a rotational grazing system allows producers to be more involved in the effectiveness of their forage and how efficiently their cattle graze.
- Cattle must be trained to electric fencing prior to turnout. Temporary fencing is a cost-effective solution to ensure the animals are ready.
- A simple equation to use to determine the number of paddocks to create: number of days of pasture rest divided by the number of days of grazing, plus one.