Juan P. Alvez | Pasture Technical Coordinator, Center for Sustainable Agriculture – UVM Extension
For many livestock farmers, grazing pastures and paddocks in a simple, sequential order may be tempting.
It can be an uncomplicated way to keep track of where animals have been. It is admittedly easy to set up a large pasture and to move those fences, strip grazing as they go from start to finish, especially during early spring, when forage growth is so hard to keep up. During this period, sequential grazing may be an acceptable approach, especially if animals are able to graze the top 20 to 50% of the plants and move quickly, staying for very short occupation periods.
However, in some cases this approach may mean missed opportunities to maximize forage efficiency, soil health and animal growth, which are key goals of optimal pasture management.
Livestock producers deal with an array of interacting variables: seasons, weather, soils, forage types, animal categories and management. Their cycles of resting, feeding and reproduction happen dynamically, mandated by seasons and weather, and affect pasture growth.
But, why might following a sequential rotation not be the best approach in rotational grazing?
Sequentially rotating livestock means moving animals in a static sequence throughout pastures, either via fixed paddocks or by strip grazing. While rotating animals using electric fence and smaller paddocks has been practiced since the end of the last century, some grazing cattle producers still graze their animals following fixed rotations. Arguably, sequentially moving animals throughout a pasture is similar to establishing a fixed rotation, allotting animals fixed areas. Sometimes this leads to fixed occupation and rest periods. If a sequential rotation is repeated too often and without doing grazing math, it may compromise mid-to late season pasture production because it takes away flexibility regarding seasons or forage availability.
Forage production tends to slow down and shrink over time along the season. To make up for the scarcity, some either graze for too long or even too close to the ground (thus overgrazing), producing unfinished animals or causing health problems.
Every inch of forage that is unnecessarily grazed weakens the photosynthesis capacity of the remaining leaves and pastures can take weeks to recover. Recovery of overgrazed forages forces the plants to draw from stores of carbohydrates (sugars) stored in the roots. If this practice is reiterated, the root structure becomes depleted, and the risk of soil exposure to the elements can ultimately lead to the erosion of the soil that farmers work so hard to build.
Skipping pastures where forage is ready to graze may entail more labor by moving animals to the right place, a few times a day. However, it is a no-cost opportunity to enhance both soil and animal health as your livestock is able to harvest more forage in its optimum stage, while also extending the grazing season. (Plus the answer to a need for a bit more labor can even be easily solved remotely, pre-setting a few Batt-Latch automatic gate openers.)