Great Grazing Has Two Critical Components

Beefs and Beliefs

The perfect match -- grazing that suits the cow and the grass -- is very attainable.

Published on: September 20, 2012

For managed grazing to succeed, both the cattle and the grass must have their needs met.

It's a balancing act not often achieved, even through their needs actually mesh perfectly once you understand them.

The forage

Forage plants need two things; (1) to be grazed and (2) to be given time to fully rebuild all stored carbohydrates used for regrowth and then to fully re-enter photosynthesis and rebuild root and crown mass before being grazed again.

In turn, that builds the soil life as plants send out roots, pare off those roots when they don't need them or can't support them and thereby leave organic matter in the soil, and as they send out nutrients to attract symbiotic soil organisms.

This process makes for a healthy plant-soil complex.

If plants are rebitten while they are growing from stored carbohydrate reserves, which happens under continuous grazing and in rotations with long graze periods, they are much weakened. They take longer to recover and cannot put up as much leaf material to begin capturing sunlight again and manufacturing carbohydrates.

Remember, you are harvesting sunlight by growing grass and then harvesting it with cattle. To capture the most sunlight the plants need to put up lots of leaves -- think of them as solar panels.

To get that captured sunlight into a form usable by humans you need to do a good job managing your livestock so they get the most from its consumption.

The cattle

Cattle need two things; (1) fresh forage every day and (2) plenty of it. Fresh forage should be a no-brainer but we've kept cattle in small herds under fences so long we don't even think that way -- we don't even ask the right questions to get those answers.

With low stocking rates under continuous grazing cattle can go around and graze the plants they want and keep themselves in relatively fresh forage for a time and get good gains. As the season wears on, however, there is less fresh growth out there because some of the plants are young and sick and others are old and lignous and the cattle don't want to eat them.

Under infrequent rotation of three days to three months, the quality drops steadily throughout the grazing period, as it does with continuous grazing.

The solution, as Beef Producer Columnist Walt Davis has said a thousand times, is to move cattle frequently into fresh and ample forage.

Ample is important too, because we all know that dozens or hundreds of research trials have shown us cattle can't gain at their optimum without full forage.

Therefore, a good question to ponder is this: How many times a day do feedlots put out fresh feed?

The answer is two or three times per day.

Feedlots know fresh feed encourages intake, which helps assure full bellies and optimum performance. They also balance the ration as well as possible to get the most performance. For a grazier this balance is between very young forage, which has too much protein in relationship to energy, and very old forage, which has too much of its energy tied up in un-digestible lignin.

The puzzle

"So," hopefully you're asking now, "how do those two things fit together?"
Think about it. Forage needs to be bitten off and then given recovery time. Cattle need fresh and ample forage every day.

The solution is to move the cattle frequently to fresh pastures -- and plenty of them. The cattle get fresh groceries and the grass gets plenty of time to recover.

The proven axiom is the higher the number of paddocks the shorter the graze periods and the longer the recovery time.

The caveat is you must never think about "making them eat it" when you are seeking performance. Instead tell yourself, "Eat the best and leave the rest."

This is how great forage managers get great performance and build their farms and ranches up to produce more forage and have higher carrying capacities.


* Plants need short graze periods and long recovery periods.

* Grazing animals need fresh forage daily and plenty of it.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I like your reference to multiple times a day feeding in feedlots ; we sometimes forget that psychology can play a role just as important as physiology. Walt Davis

  2. Anonymous says:

    Part of the problem (caused by too many fences) is that we think of moving cattle as to labor intensive. I know of no other business where the cash crop is ignored as much as it is by people raising cattle. I am starting a project to show how easy it is to to loose herd cattle through a grazing plan. We will be running 400 cows through a 32,000 acre grazing plan in nine months. This project will start by the 25 of September,2012 with a video blog going up at Information o the ranch doing this is at

  3. Anonymous says:

    My advice would be to start with a significant amount of standing forage, even if that means you fertilizer prior to your first attempt at planned grazing. Its extremely difficult to mob graze a weak stand of forage and do anything positive for either the soil or the animal. Just my .02.