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Managed grazing makes sense

According to the 2007 U.S. Ag Census, more than 11,000 Wisconsin dairy and livestock farms utilize some form of rotational or managed grazing. For dairy herds of all sizes, managed grazing is a flexible practice that can fit into current feed management and forage production strategies. Pasture resources can be managed to provide forage needs of individual groups of lactating cows, dry cows, heifers or the entire herd during the grazing season.

Basically, managed grazing is a systematic approach to managing pastures as you would any other crop — by paying attention to physiology and management needs of pasture forages to optimize their production potential. Cattle are periodically rotated through subdivided pastures to harvest fresh forage, saving time, labor and fuel costs by reducing both harvesting and manure spreading activities.

A managed grazing system is designed to encourage high-quality forage and high dry-matter intake. The keys to managed grazing include:

• grazing at the optimum vegetative growth stage to ensure that forage quality and quantity are available

• leaving an adequate stubble height (“residual forage”) for quick pasture recovery

• providing a rest interval to ensure adequate plant growth occurs before the next grazing cycle begins

Cows prefer tender, young green plant growth over more mature plants. With continuous (unmanaged) grazing, cows essentially utilize only about a third of the forage grown per unit of land area because they constantly return to previously grazed plants and ignore other forage that has already matured.

One advantage of adding grazing into a dairy herd feeding strategy is that the cows are out harvesting their own feed during the busy growing season. As with a conventional feeding strategy, dairy graziers in the upper Midwest still grow and harvest other forage crops for use outside the grazing season, but because cows are grazed on pastures for several months each year, less stored forage needs to be harvested.

Much of the winter forage needs can be harvested early in the growing season as hay, haylage or baleage when forage quantity is greatest. Many graziers also choose to focus their primary efforts on managing for high-quality forage and pasture production, and then purchase grain and corn silage, reducing the need to tie up capital in additional crop and machinery inputs.

Assistance available

Wisconsin is fortunate in that significant technical assistance is available to support dairy producers interested in developing a managed grazing system. The local Extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service or Land Conservation Department office can provide information and assistance, or will have contact information for a nearby grazing specialist who has been trained to develop managed grazing plans for individual farms.

Systems are designed to fit the farm and include flexible fencing options, lanes and in-pasture watering options, if needed. Cost-sharing of grazing system infrastructure may also be available through the local NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Wisconsin also has a statewide membership organization for farmers called GrassWorks (see and numerous local grazing networks.

The University of Wisconsin Extension Forage Team also offers beginning grazing schools at various locations around the state every summer. For more information on the 2010 grazing schools, call Dennis Cosgrove, UW-River Falls, at 715-425-4435, or e-mail

Gildersleeve is a UW Extension grazing research specialist.

This article published in the June, 2010 edition of WISCONSIN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.