Grazing livestock in a rotational system offers an efficient way to conserve money and benefit the land. Rotational grazing is a system of moving livestock from one pasture to another, keeping them moving throughout the grazing season into different paddocks. A rest period is observed after animals leave, giving the plants and land time to rest and recover. Paddocks are sections of pasture that are divided by either a permanent fence or a temporary fence such as polywire.

As a livestock producer myself, I chose to transition our farm from a continuous grazing system into a rotational grazing system. By doing so I was able to increase the number of cattle, all while providing the needed inputs directly from our farm. We have seen improvements in our pasture quality, quantity, and our soil is becoming healthier. We have become more sustainable as a farm. As the prices of many inputs for producers rise, many are looking for ways to continue farming without having additional expenses.

Grazing in a rotational system offers producers the ability to decrease feed input costs, such as feeding hay bales in the summer or corn/silage/grain. The grazing season in Michigan typically starts in May. With good planning and movement, grazing into October is common. Some additions may even allow for additional grazing opportunity, but more time in preparation and planning may be necessary. Examples to extend the grazing season include planting grazable annual forage stands, utilizing cover crops and stockpiling summer forage for use in fall and winter. Key factors to consider when contemplating setting your farm up for rotational grazing include determining if you have enough forage/land to maintain the current herd capacity without over grazing. The sizing of your pasture paddocks must appropriately match the amount of time or residency you are planning to be in each. You must also ensure you have good fences to contain the livestock and have water in close proximity.

Allowing for a set rest period is very critical to successful rotational grazing. Grazed forages should have a minimum of a 45-day rest in general before grazing the paddock again. This can be dependent on weather, moisture, growth rate of forages and stocking rates. The use of adaptive management decisions will determine and adjust the intensity, frequency, timing, and duration of the grazing.

Adaptive management is used to assess the situation and decide how to best achieve your grazing goals, while remaining flexible and altering your plans as needed to compensate for many variables. Examples include, allowing for longer rests periods in times of drought, or shortening your residency period to move through the system faster during the spring when forages are growing at a rapid pace.

Fields planted into perennial pastures aid in reducing wind and water erosion by offering continuous soil cover. The cattle improve soil health by building organic matter and improving soil fertility. Overgrazing forages creates the opportunity for the soil to be eroded by being exposed to the sun, wind and rain. The forage canopy or trampled forages, build a thatch to keep soils cool, conserve moisture, build soil microbiology and prevent soil erosion. Animals should be moved so that your forage height minimum goal is always maintained to avoid overgrazing. It is recommended to not graze your forage below 4 inches, and to begin grazing at 8 inches.

Properly grazed lands should reduce weed pressure and provide improved forages for your livestock over time. The animals will naturally spread manure, urine and saliva directly onto the fields to be used as fertilizer for the growing forages. This reduces cost and time spent on cleaning pens, hauling manure, and saves money on fertilizer applications. The grasses and legume ground cover also prevent nutrients from running out of the fields and entering waterways. This preserves water quality on the farm and watershed.

Calving/lambing/kidding can also be done on pasture and ensures fresh born babies have clean fresh grass to utilize for bedding. Ensuring livestock have plenty of forage in the paddocks helps ensure their grazable material doesn’t contain any fresh manure, reducing diseases and parasites the herd is exposed to. Livestock on pasture will also avoid muddy conditions, decreasing exposure to bacteria.

Rotational grazing may become a more viable option for many producers to consider adopting as a practice in the future. It is a task that can be done easily for producers with continuous grazing systems already in place. Basic rotational grazing can be done by adding in some temporary fencing and ensuring portable water is available. The time commitment to feed stock daily versus moving them from paddock to paddock may be comparable. Moving them every day or every few days also ensures the producer gets to examine and observe the herd/flock up close, potentially catching arising issues.

If you are interested in initiating a rotational grazing system on your farm and are looking for technical advice, please reach out to the Osceola-Lake Conservation District. We can help guide you to needed resources for education or potential cost share programs that may be available.

Brandi Mitchell is the MAEAP Technician for Osceola-Lake Conservation District. For more information, contact her at 231-465-8005, or stop by the Osceola-Lake Conservation District at 138 W. Upton, Suite 2, Reed City.