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What is rotational grazing and why does it matter?

rotational grazing, grazing

What is rotational grazing? Some of us more familiar with agriculture and farming practices may have heard of this term before, but for others it may seem like a far and distant concept. However, it’s something everyone should learn more about and be educated on, seeing as it affects the ecosystems all around us.

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • What rotational grazing is

  • Why does rotational grazing matter

  • Why use it

  • Understanding the lifecycle of plants

  • Understanding animal digestion

What is rotational grazing?

Rotational grazing is when only one part of the pasture is being grazed at a time, allowing the other parts of the pasture to rest. To make this process a little bit easier, the pasture is divided up into sections, otherwise known as paddocks. With rotational grazing, the livstock are moved from one paddock to another, giving the other grazed paddocks time to rest and recover. This time of rest is extremely crucial for the health of the plant ecosystem which we’ll discuss shortly.

But how do you make sure the system of rotational grazing is successful? Well, it has a lot to do with the growth stages of the forage. Most farms unfortunately lack this luxury due to their time schedules, etc. Not only can the schedules vary in timing, but they can range from 2 to 30 or more paddocks.

Why Rotational Grazing?

Most pastures are continuously grazed throughout the seasons. However, this continuous grazing often results in the lowest pasture yields since the forage can’t bounce back as well between grazing. This is why farmers are looking to manage in such a way that they can make optimal profit from side pastures. Who can benefit from rotational grazing? The answer is everyone. But how? Well, there are economic benefits, time benefits, environmental benefits, benefits for the pasture itself, human health benefits and of course, animal health benefits as well.

The first reason farmers typically try rotational grazing is because of the cost efficiency. But how efficient can it be? Well, in one example, grazers in Wisconsin averaged about $200 more per acre net farm income when compared to traditional confinement dairy farms. This was gathered by the University of Wisconsin Center for dairy profitability. Interestingly enough, both the startup and maintenance cost for grazing are much less when compared to the confinement systems. Besides the initial cost of fencing, once implemented, grazing can reduce the need for equipment, fertilizer, pesticide, and labor costs.

Those aren’t the only things they’ll save when switching to a rotational grazing plan.

rotational grazing

Benefits & Resource Commitment

Time plays a huge role on the productivity of a farmer. There never seems to be enough hours in the day when it comes to moving animals. Most times, farmers are hesitant to switch to rotational grazing due to their concern for the amount of time it will take to move their livestock. But as long as paddock and fencing design is set up efficiently, there really shouldn’t be much cause for concern. Feeding cows hay and silage, and confinement, on the other hand, could take considerably longer.

Another advantage to rotational grazing would be the environmental benefits it provides. When a pasture is managed to its optimal state, it can have an extremely positive effect on decreasing soil erosion potential while requiring minimal pesticides and fertilizers.

Pasturing also has a significant impact on water quality as well. Think about it. What are some of the biggest issues we see in human, animal and wildlife health? A lot of them have to do with the nitrates and pesticides found in our ground and surface water. How does rotational grazing help this? First, pasturing reduces the amount of nitrates and pesticides that are produced as a whole which allows root systems to take out more nutrients. It also helps minimize the amount of nitrates and pesticides that would otherwise be sent to various streams and lakes.

Now, the third reason rotational grazing is beneficial is because it can help pasture productivity. For some this makes sense, right? The rotational grazing system helps to improve long-term quality of the pasture. It can also help to increase the amount of forage that’s grazed and harvested by as much as two tons dry matter per acre. That’s a lot of forage.

So what about humans? How do we as a society benefit from the perks of rotational grazing? Well, for the farmer, it can be looked at as a much more satisfying way of life. You get to see the process of the fruits of your labor happening right in front of you. It even gives you an excuse to get out and stretch your legs a bit more than you normally would. Besides, the more you move and the more vitamin D you get, the happier you’ll be, right?

Now, humans aren’t the only ones to be concerned about. Animal welfare plays a huge role in the benefits of rotational grazing. The animals you see in grazing systems are, more often than not, much healthier than animals housed in confinement lots, although, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as the animals in confinement are much more susceptible to disease, trauma, etc. The grazing animals have the ability to roam and graze on fresh green grass and enjoy fresh air. This, in turn, reduces their exposure to microorganisms. This ability to roam freely also enhances their physical fitness and overall well-being. However, this also means they’re exposed to the elements and perhaps predators as well. It’s another job for the farmer to make sure his cattle are safe and well protected.

Improving Ecosystems

So now that we’ve gone over the benefits of rotational grazing, let’s talk about ecosystem. How does rotational grazing affect the life cycle of a plant? This requires we take a deeper look at the plant growth in general. When discussing the grazing of pasture plants, one might think these plants must be extremely damaged from trampling. These grasses have an effective way of coping with all of the hungry livestock. In fact, grazing can actually stimulate pasture growth because it gets rid of old or dead plant life on the surface that would otherwise stunt the growth of young leaves.

How do these plants grow? Well, through a process you might remember learning about way back when an elementary school. Yep, that’s right, photosynthesis. Plants get the energy needed for growth from the sun through this process of photosynthesis. The plant then converts energy to carbohydrates which can be used either for growth or stored in the roots for future use. During the fall, most of this energy will be stored as the plant begins to prepare for winter.

After the grazing process, the stored carbs come in very handy for the plant. They provide the plant with necessary energy for regrowth until the plant is grown enough to put itself through its next cycle of photosynthesis. The cycle continues until fall.

When it comes to developing a grazing pattern, you’ll want the grazing to be after the most rapid period of growth. However, it really depends on the species of the plant, as they’re all different. Regardless of plant species, the goal is always the same, corresponding forage production with livestock needs.

The Role Of Digestion

What’s another contributor do to the grazing cycle and life cycle of the plants? Well, the animals of course. More specifically, animal digestion. Animals like cows, sheep and goats are considered natural grazers. Their rumen (also known as their first stomach) are full of microbes that break down and process the majority of the plant. Because of this ability, these grazing animals have no issue getting all of the nutrients they need for optimal growth and production from grazing alone. 

Grazing isn’t the only way the animals contribute to the cycle. They harvest, but they also turn over soil, trample on forage and spread manure. Without these components, rotational grazing wouldn’t really be possible, at least not to its full extent.

There is no doubt that rotational grazing can be extremely beneficial for farmers, animals, livestock, the ecosystem, and the environment as a whole.

Better Nutrition

Grass-fed, pasture raised beef is superior in nutritional value as food. When nature is allowed to function as intended, the results can be amazing. A grassfed beef steak or roast has a richer flavor profile and offers more vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and nutrients than factory raised, grain-fed beef.

stephanie lodge

Steph is a writer, competitive weightlifter and nutritional consultant with a passion for health and wellness. She is the founder of The Athlete’s Kitchen, a website dedicated to providing its audience with articles, recipes and the latest nutritional information on their favorite foods. Find her on instagram or at