By John Kellis, Ohio Department of Agriculture grazing management specialist
Most southern Ohio pastures are located squarely in the “tall fescue belt.” As these grasses go dormant in the fall, they become a very palatable to cattle and can be intensively grazed. Often producers will strip graze these grasses beginning in December, moving portable fence back 50 feet at a time across the field. Cattle will struggle to get to the next available strip of brown fescue rather than eat hay that may be set behind the cattle. After dormancy, the fescue can be eaten down lower to the ground than you would typically leave after fall grazing where you need to leave at least 4 to 6 inches of growth. This “stockpiling” of forage is a good alternative for late fall and winter grazing. This practice further reduces the need for hay and can provide grazable acres into January or February.
All the techniques discussed above work even better when cattle are grazed in smaller rotated paddocks. This is not because planners want to make more work for the producer. The reason behind rotational grazing is four-fold:
- Rotating the pastures forces the animals to eat the forage in each paddock more even and thoroughly. Allowing the animals to continuously graze in large open pastures will waste as much as 50% of the available forage. By properly rotating animals through designed paddocks, that loss can be reduced to 20% or 25%, effectively increasing the amount of forage consumed by the livestock. Few would knowingly throw away 25% of their feed.
- Rotating the livestock through these paddocks will ensure that the manure returned to the pasture as fertilizer will be spread more evenly throughout the pasture. In large continuously grazed pastures, cows will congregate around available water, or shade, and will not travel to those back areas, resulting in uneven fertility where some areas will become too high in fertility becoming a potential pollutant and other areas will be greatly under fertilized, reducing forage yields and requiring more commercial fertilizer.
- Watering systems can be designed to make water readily available to the livestock in each paddock. Providing good clean water will improve the performance of the cattle.
- Properly designed grazing systems will provide a 30-day rest period for the forages throughout the year. This rest period is crucial for the grasses and legumes to recover and provide quality food to livestock as they are rotated back into the paddock for grazing. The 30-day rest period is an annual average. In the spring flush, you can rotate somewhat quicker to maybe 20 days. Likewise, warm-season grasses in the summer can be rotated every 20 days due to the growth rate of those species in the hot months of June, July and August.
Heavy use area protection
When the cows do need to be placed in a more confined area because of overly-wet conditions, drought, in winter months when they do not have pasture to graze or may be calving, the grazing plan will help locate a heavy use area that will be undercut with geotextile fabric installed. The fabric maintains a separation between the soils and the gravel and will be covered with 8 inches of a heavier gravel base topped with 3-inches of a smaller grade sacrificial layer of gravel that will eventually be worn off as the manure is cleaned from the lot and will need to be replaced.
This practice is typically located within a larger “sacrifice paddock.” The paddock should be at least a quarter acre per 1,000-pound animal unit. These heavy use areas (pads) should be located on more level non-erosive soils. The intent is having enough slope on the pad to allow water to move off, but flat enough to avoid erosion. Another practice related to the heavy use areas are access roads. This hardens travel lanes in a similar way to the heavy use area, so a producer can travel to and from the feeding area and hay storage area without compacting, mudding up, or eroding the lanes.
Summary of a good grazing management system
- Diversify the available forage or feed throughout the year using: cover crops, cool-season pasture, warm-season pasture, summer and or fall annuals, crop residues, and stockpiled cool-season grasses.
- Rotate your pastures by properly fencing and subdividing paddocks to allow you to move the cattle evenly throughout the entire pasture while providing 20 to 30 days’ rest between grazing.
- Soil test periodically to identify where nutrients are lacking or are building to unacceptable levels so that lime, commercial fertilizer, and manure can be placed efficiently to improve yields and soils health. Frost seedings can periodically by performed in the late-winter freeze/thaw cycle mixing the hard legume seed with the fertilizer. This will re-establish and maintain legumes in the pasture cover.
- Water systems should be designed that will provide adequate high-quality water to each paddock for your livestock throughout the year.
- Exclude livestock from sensitive areas to control pollution and protect the wetlands, forests, and streams from degradation.
- Have contingency plans in place that identify places where livestock can be safely located during periods drought, heavy rains or flooding.
While every operation is different and the grazing management practices will be developed to serve each situation, in general, Ohio pastures require roughly 2.5 acres to support a typical 1,300-pound cow/calf pair, not one acre for one cow. A grazer should approach their operation as managing the forages using the cattle as one of the tools to do so rather than viewing the operation as managing the cattle.