Going Around In Circles

Rotational grazing doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for at least two reasons. One reason it doesn’t work is that, rather than rotationally graze, most people rotationally overgraze. They get overstocking and overgrazing confused. Overstocking happens when you have more animals than you have grass to support them. Overgrazing happens when you keep animals in a pasture too long or bring them back to it too soon. Either way, overgrazing happens when you don’t give plants enough time to recover after they’ve been grazed. It takes a minimum of 8 paddocks to stop overgrazing. Any rotation with fewer than 8 paddocks isn’t rotational grazing. It is rotational overgrazing!

But there’s another reason it doesn’t work.

Rotation implies rigidity, and that’s exactly the way most people move their animals in a grazing rotation. They move from one pasture to the next on a fixed schedule, essentially going around in circles. You rotate your tires (or should) in a certain pattern at a certain time. Troop rotations happen at a certain time in a certain way. That may be fine for mechanical systems, but rigid rotations don’t work in the biological world.

I wish I could give you a recipe for grazing: Come in when the grass is a foot tall. Stay two days. Move in the morning. Season with some minerals and rest for 2 months.

But there is no recipe for a healthy landscape and a productive, profitable ranch … just a collection of principles:

  1. Adjust the rest period as the growth rate changes to give plants adequate time to recover after grazing.
  2. Keep graze periods short to keep animal performance high.
  3. Use the highest stock density practical to improve uniformity of use and pasture quality.
  4. Use the largest herd possible, consistent with good husbandry. This increases stock density and makes more paddocks available per herd, which keeps the graze periods short. It also saves labor.
  5. Fluctuate the stocking rate (demand) to match the carrying capacity (supply). In other words, don’t overstock!

If there was a sixth principle, it would be to apply the other five flexibly. Recovery periods should be adjusted as the pasture growth rate changes. Graze periods should be shorter when animal needs are high (e.g. lactation). Carrying capacity changes annually and seasonally, so we need to be prepared to change stocking rate annually and seasonally too. Rigidity is a recipe for a wreck.

Most of the people who profitably manage livestock and pasture have 25 or more pastures per herd.  They may use the word rotation to describe what they do, but what they do doesn’t look very much like a rotation. They go where the resource dictates and base their decisions on the needs of the grass, the animals and themselves. They don’t go around in circles.

Listen to an Ranching For Profit School Grad explain how he applies the grazing principles: Derek’s Story

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7 Comments


  1. That’s a really good post. I can’t say that I agree that rotational grazing doesn’t work, because it can work. But I tend to agree with your observations that people often overgraze and overstock.

    I too was asked many times for the recipe, which, as you know, you can’t give. Drought, stage of lactation, forages and everything you listed conspire to make it a management decision. It’s like asking an NFL coach for the recipe to win a game. Uh…there isn’t one. But games can be won, with in-game adjustments and effective execution.

    Good post.
    Tim
    smallfarmnation.com

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  2. This year in Wisconsin it seemed to rain 1 day out of every 3 days. Making hay was a real challenge, yet grazing was a joy. The grass grew and grew this year. The cattle are filled out with nice BCS scores and I moved them very often to benefit both my grass and the cattle. I learned so much at the RMC school. Yet, I enjoy the reminders from this blog.
    David Lee Schneider

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  3. Dave,

    25 paddocks or so is the minimum you have stated are needed to start managing grass. Excellent advice that always simplified it for me. Basically, don’t even think you are rotationallt grazing and improving the land until you have 25 paddocks.

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    1. Thanks for your comment…even if you did use the “R” word. I agree that somewhere around 25 paddocks is usually a pretty good starting point…but there are exceptions…seasonal enterprises for example. If I have an enterprise on green growing grass for a couple of months, I can probably do okay with 8-10 paddocks, although my animals, plants and soil would probably benefit from more.)

      Most people rotationally grazing have it bass-ackwards. They think the time to get intensive is in the spring when things are growing fast… But it’s when things are slowing down, or dormant that we need more paddocks and need to get intensive with our management. Jim Gerrish had it right when he coined the term Management Intensive Grazing. He put the emPHASis on the right SYLLable. Anyone can grow grass when the sun is out and it’s raining, but show me someone who can manage grass and support good animal performance when the grass isn’t growing and I’ll show you someone who actually knows what they are doing… and what they are doing is Management Intensive Grazing not Intensive Grazing Management and definately NOT rotational grazing.

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  4. I would add to do whatever you can to keep the animals comfortable. Part of that for us is to have shade during really hot days and some times that means changing the rotation

    I would also add that if you happen to over graze a paddock,it might mean removingclose that paddock from the next rotation

    In short take care of both the cattle and the grass

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  5. Hi Dave, Love the interview with Derek, he sums up grazing pretty well and with a sense of humor. Well worth the watch. Brett

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  6. Last summer we had a bad drought in New Hampshire — a very unusual situation for us. I still managed to keep my little operation going by tightening up my paddocks and moving animals twice a day. When I sat down after the season was over and looked at the patterns I had followed, I realized that I had used 85 paddocks. I kept a group of feeder lambs about three to five weeks behind a group of steers, and I had high quality feed for both groups from May to nearly November, while most of my neighbors fed hay starting in July.

    Frequent moves, high residue (something you didn’t exactly mention) and putting the right kind of animals in the right place at the right time were key. Steers gained 2.9 pounds per day and the lambs gained .42 pounds per day. Neither figure is stellar, but both are better than buying hay or feeding your winter reserves in July.

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