Is Your Ranch Rotationally Overgrazed?

Beefs and Beliefs

The best grazing management requires protection for grasses and quality for cattle.

Published on: May 3, 2012

Dave Pratt wrote a really nice blog the other day about grazing which I think deserves more comment and recirculation.

Pratt, who owns Ranching for Profit, recalled a survey of commercial beef producers he did a few years back which showed most "rotational" graziers had fewer than eight paddocks per herd. In turn, he termed this "rotational overgrazing."

Pratt then explained: "Overgrazing is grazing a plant before it has recovered from a previous grazing. There are two ways to overgraze a plant: stay in a paddock too long or come back to the paddock too soon. It takes a minimum of 8 to 10 paddocks per herd to give plants an adequate recovery period and keep the graze period short enough so that the animals are gone by the time the pasture is recovering. With fewer than 8 paddocks per herd you are rotational overgrazing."

I say amen to that and here's why. Just as Pratt explained in his blog, such a low number of paddocks still allows overgrazing of the plants and also hurts animal performance because of the long graze periods. When animals enter a paddock they eat the best and most nutritious material first, then fill in with plant material we still don't understand to balance their diets to some degree. If they are kept on that same grass very long they no longer have fresh feed and they no longer have choice or quality.

In fact, if managed well, the best performance comes with moves once a day or more. This is especially important for performance cattle like stockers, dairy cows and lactating cows.

That means in times of slow growth such as the heat of summer and depending on forage type and management goals, that could call for 60 paddocks per herd or more.

More paddocks and higher stock densities also improve the percentage of forage consumed and decrease the percentage trampled. It also improves distribution of manure and urine and therefore may improve the nutritive feeding of the soil, although this assumption is still poorly examined or researched.

Pratt suggested a minimum of 25 paddocks per herd to begin seeing real advantages. I argue that's still not enough but his comments remind me of something Bob Steger, the Texas rancher and former college professor once told me about his days consulting in Mexico and his own experiences working with Allan Savory and with grazing management on his own ranches.

Steger said there was always a language barrier in those Mexican consulting sessions and even though he tried to teach the principles of holistic planning for grazing and the entire ranch it wasn't quite getting through.

Finally he told the ranchers to built 30 paddocks and move once a day when the grass was growing and every other day when it was hot and dry and the grass quit growing. It seems I recall it was an introduced forage of some sort. Steger told me it worked fairly well for them most of the time and provided a good starting place.

He said, "Savory would have had a fit" because he has stressed all along that grazing is a fluid thing which must be planned, monitored and altered depending on goals and conditions. But again, it was enough paddocks to help those Mexican beef and dairy producers see the difference they could make and still allow them to get reasonably good production with both grass and cattle.

Grazing management is the topic of the August issue of Beef Producer and we'll cover more of these topics then, so be watching for it in your mailbox.