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Keyline continued

December 14, 2010

Here’s an actual photo of the field in the map after grazing, taken from where paddock #11 was.  Also this shows the next field where the keylines continue, but are “broken” by permanent fence.  You can barely make the cows out in the center of the photo.  The keylines change direction in the next field and knobs turn to swales, and we have “broken” the keylines again this time with a semi-permanent electric fence to make temporary fencing easier.  I have to pay attention to my keylines because my slopes range from 3% – 60%.  Ignoring this means less productivity, and potential harm to the land.  I plan my grazing so I am not grazing steep south-facing slopes in the dry hot summer weather we get.  We have high rainfall here, but dry Mediterranean type summers.  Exposing those slopes to the soil during that time is a pasture nightmare.

I know when I say the electric fencing is easy for me, and then you look at this drawing of a recent pass on one of my pastures, I am sure you think I must be crazy.  Practice makes perfect or at least better in most cases.  Our first attempts at electric fencing were way overbuilt and thought out.  We couldn’t see small enough, and we still had the permanent fence mindset.  We were thinking physical barrier, not psychological barrier.  We started out with too much fence, which made too much work, it seemed daunting, not easy as we had been led to believe.  We gradually dropped methods that seemed unnecessary and finally arrived at a pretty good system that kept the cows were we wanted with a minimum of effort and supplies.  My take is that if you expect to move your cattle everyday, the system needs to be flexible and easy to manage.   If you want to do daily moves resist the urge to design or build your fence like you would build a permanent fence.  And if you don’t want to move your cattle don’t depend on a fake-a-ma-lou electric fence to contain them.  In my observations, on my farm and on others I know, most cows on continuous grazed pastures are hungry.  Hungry for good deep-rooted, tall forage and fresh grass.  The terms deep-rooted and fresh do not go with continuous grazing and loose weekly or monthly rotations.  Content livestock stay where you put them.  I know this because I used to have “hungry” continuous grazed cows.  The difference is astounding.

This field has a semi-permanent electric fence around three sides and a permanent fence on the remaining side.  Those stay in place year round.  If the cows get “out” they are still in because of permanent property boundary fences.  My goal when fencing is to work a day or two ahead but not to have too much fence up  and electrified that will just weaken the entire system.  Plus too much fence makes it hard for me to deliver water as needed.  Building paddocks as you go allows you to test your grass and cow prowess.  Not enough to eat one day?  Fix that the next day with a larger paddock.  Too much?  Make the next paddock smaller.

To start in this field I would build the first keyline fence on the left. (10 minutes.)
Build cross fence dividing potential paddocks 1-2 and 3-4. (5 minutes.)
Build cross fence to divide 1 from 2. (5 minutes.)
Position trough & mineral box.  (2 minutes.)
Move cows. (1 minute.)
Fill trough and minerals. (5 minutes.)
This takes about one half hour. But this also includes part of my fence for the entire week and for sure the next day.  On day two all I have to do is open the gate and close it.  This half hour doesn’t count filling my water tank, and driving to the pasture.  With gravity water it takes about 30 minutes to fill the tank, and then about 10 minutes to drive to the field, most of which is spent opening and closing gates.  I allot an hour a day for cow moving.  Sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more but 7 hours a week is about right.

On day three I add another cross fence between 3-4 and 5.  Then I take down the fence dividing 1 & 2 and use that fence to divide 3 & 4.  By then the cows have watched me intently and are waiting by the gate to go into #3.  This literally can be done in 15 minutes.

Day 4 is the same as day 2, the fence is built and all I have to do is open and close the gate.  Check water and minerals.

Day 5 I take down the backfence and crossfence on 3 & 4 and use some of those supplies to build the fence between 5 & 6.  Move the trough to the crossfence between 5 & 6.

For day 7 I have to build another long keyline fence which will become my front fence and the first long keyline is now serving as the backfence.  Just a short cross fence and 7 is ready.  And so it goes until I get to 11, and head back the other direction.  Basically you are just moving one step ahead of the cows with your fence and water/mineral troughs and taking down back fences as you move along.

I’m fencing on the cheap with a 2 ½ pound sledge hammer, rebar posts, single strand wire, fence energizer, 12 volt marine battery, purchased gate handles and insulators, and recycled welding wire spools.

Things to remember:

This may not work for you this time of year depending on how well your soil drains or doesn’t.  Ours is well-drained and fully covered with vegetation, so I can get away with grazing during rainy periods even now when we are receiving an inch or two a day.  Besides looking at your land during rainy periods to see if it drains well or not, the NRCS Web Soil Survey at this link can help you pinpoint your soil type and its characteristics.  The info is free unless you need a print-out.  The easiest way to use this is by address, then define your Area of Interest (AOI) and the click the Soil Map tab.  You may only have one soil type or you may have several.  If you have more than one soil type, go look at what grows there and see if you can see a difference in the plants due to the soil type.  In our pastures it is as clear as day, if you look.

Rotational grazing isn’t for everybody due to the management intensity required, (that’s why they call it MiG – Management-intensive Grazing) but if you’re game it’s a great way to keep your stock and enhance your bottom line by spending less time hauling feed to your cows.  Let them graze the pasture and crop and save your fuel money for something else.  A friend of mine was mildly curious about doing this with his cows, but he decided it took too much time – however he hauls feed to his cows every day and is actually spending the same amount of time and more money doing that.  So it does require a shift in thinking.

Just think about this for next year, seed catalogs are coming in fast and furious now, and people are planning their gardens.  Now is the time to be getting your mind right about rotational grazing too 🙂

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Sue Sullivan permalink
    December 14, 2010 9:24 am

    I’m just a backyard veg and chicken grower, and I found this wonderfully clear and fascinating. Thanks for such a great explanation! Maybe some day, before I get too old, I’ll be on real acreage… A girl can dream!

  2. December 14, 2010 12:02 pm

    Sure does look like a lot of work….it wouldn’t work here for which I think, after reading this, I’m grateful 😉

    • December 14, 2010 1:59 pm

      Linda, I need the exercise though… What can you expect from someone too dumb to quit using idiot cubes? 😉

  3. Linda Zoldoske permalink
    December 14, 2010 12:36 pm

    So interesting! Thanks!

  4. December 14, 2010 2:08 pm

    I went to the soils link and it was pretty interesting. We do daily rotation here, and it’s made a HUGE difference in the quality of the pasture/soil.

    Your estimates of time spent are the same as ours, except we don’t have to haul water, currently. Next year, that may change with the addition of 10 acres to our rotation.

    Excellent description of how you do it, and why.

    • December 14, 2010 2:30 pm

      Pam, isn’t that a fun link, we’re in a “new” area as far as geology goes, our mountains are young and active volcanos, so we’re on volcanic soils for the most part. Grazing like this has made an incredible difference in my feed bill/workload. We used to start feeding hay in October if we were lucky, sometimes sooner and it was hay every day until April. And all that hay feeding means lots of hay making in the summer. Ugh, much harder work than sticking a few posts in the ground. 🙂 I fed hay for a week and a half while we had snow and the grass was covered. Now they are back to rotating through the remaining stockpile.

      I walked (not to rub it in) today, with 2″ of rain a day they aren’t drinking any water, they’re absorbing it! Just kidding, they are getting enough from the grass. But anyway, it took me 45 minutes to walk the mile, build two short fences, chase a calf back in, move the cows, and walk back home. I’m soaking wet, but oh well. It’s my dream job, outside with cows, I like it. 🙂

  5. December 15, 2010 12:24 am

    Great work again! With these sketches You could get some graphics design job immediately.
    Just a few questions:
    You are dealing with 16 days cycle now, right? Do you adjust the time period in the summer, or it should be kept the same all year round?
    I’m trying hard to change my thinking about the fencing, as you suggested 🙂 How often cows break trough the “light” fence?

    • December 15, 2010 6:17 am


      That is just one small field, but actually I am at about 180 days right now, meaning that where the cows are grazing today hasn’t been grazed since 180 days ago. In spring I go on a much faster rotation with larger paddocks, and as the grass gets stronger and grows faster, I start slowing the cows down with smaller paddocks. So a larger 20 acre field may be 5 paddocks and then it may be 75 depending on the grass, cows, hay allotment etc. It changes with not much of a set pattern.

      It’s hard to change the permanent fence idea I know. I am very resistant to change. But the electric fence really opens up the opportunities for the farmer by manipulating the rest and impact. You get your “first paycheck” right away by seeing enhanced pasture growth. Honestly, they never really get out hardly at all, unless they have “help” from cougars, illegal hunters, or other various “property enjoyers.” I leave the fence high enough that the calves can creep feed where ever they want. Of course that would be a problem if you didn’t have a permanent fence to keep them from roadways. They don’t really push the fence at all, even if I forget to turn it back on. With my cow and other livestock type experience, if they are getting out constantly they aren’t getting enough to eat, and that is very common with permanent fence, continous grazing setups. Problem livestock really need their humans to look at the whole system. In most stories the “stupid cow, goat or —–” get blamed and really there probably isn’t enough feed, or stray voltage in a barn or something of that nature.

  6. December 15, 2010 7:11 am

    Very well done couple of posts, Matronofhusbandry! We do something like this but somewhat differently. Even though we raise our own feed we like to have all the grazing we can get.

    YEAH for seed catalogs! They help me through the winter.


    • December 15, 2010 7:48 am

      Linda, I second the yeah for seed catalogs, you can feel the warmth radiating from them with all the wonderful summer time photos! Yep, the grazing is the cheapest feed if you can get it!

  7. December 16, 2010 9:23 am

    Hello from England! I stumbled upon your post while searching for temporary fencing for my company. I stayed to read and must say what a fantastic life you seem to have – although it sounds like really hard work. I bought 20 acres in Derbyshire, England in 2002; changed the pasture to woodland and now I just sit back with a couple of beers watching them grow! 

  8. December 16, 2010 12:58 pm

    Nice posts yet again, Matron! How do you get the overall dimensions of the specific acreage to work into paddocks on paper? Newbies here, as you said, using winter to get ready for their first cattle in spring!

    • December 16, 2010 10:11 pm

      Krystal, you can just do a rough perimeter measurement, figure out square footage, and divide by 43,560 which is the square footage of an acre. That will give you a pretty close estimate of what you have. Winter is a good time too, to identify poor drainage areas, and see if you have any potential water problems.

  9. December 18, 2010 6:13 pm

    Again, thanks for the clear explanations. This is better than anything else I’ve read on the subject, and I really appreciate it.

  10. Lucy permalink
    December 19, 2010 6:07 am

    I’m finally getting it! We have horses, though, and as you have pointed out before, they aren’t as temporary-fence-friendly (not smart enough to adapt is more like it!). In our paddocks, which are permanently fenced, we did use some of what I learned from you about when to rotate to just about double the feed grazed from it last season (yea!). Our pasture area is divided into high and low, but now I can visualize the way it could be divided into paddocks according to the keylines. Problem is, it results in non-horse-friendly fencelines. Grrr. Definitely food for though for the winter and maybe once I can walk back there again (it’s in snow to my waist right now) I can do some dividing.

    • December 19, 2010 6:34 am

      Lucy, Yeah! It’s a light bulb moment isn’t it when you see some results. Horses are so different, needing training on both sides I can’t fault them for the way their brains work. It’s just much easier to train cattle to electric fence. You are to be commended for getting so far so fast. 🙂 You know you’re on your way if you are seeing paddock divisions underneath all that snow 😉

      Waist deep!! Terrible, it’s just a skiff of snow here and hovering above freezing.

      • Lucy permalink
        December 21, 2010 6:22 pm

        We have 33 inches of snow on the ground and haven’t seen freezing for a while. We have already had 2 days that stayed below zero for a high temp. Winter grazing is just a fantasy for us!

  11. Marilyn permalink
    December 24, 2010 3:47 pm

    MoH – Thank you for yet another amazing post.

    Finally, after over a year, I have sheep arriving on my farm this coming week. The goal is MIG, and it sure is useful to read these posts and see your pictures! Lots to learn.

    I first found your blog searching for Guernseys in Oregon. My new-to-me farm is just outside Bandon. The core of the operation will be a sheep; we’ll be milking them and making cheese. I also want a small (very small!) herd of Guernseys.

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I hope to meet you some day.

    • January 7, 2011 6:18 am

      Marilyn, Hi – and thanks 🙂 You will love your Guernseys, they are sweet, well, actually all cows are pretty sweet.

      Let me know if you find a stockpile of Guernseys somewhere…that we don’t know about. Good luck with your cheese adventures 🙂

  12. January 5, 2011 1:41 pm

    Once again an excellent informative post. As an owner of two cows, I’m wondering if this rotational approach will scale down to my level. I’m just west of Portland, so have a similar climate as yours. Any estimates on what kind of acreage would be needed to support two cows (mostly) year round?

    Thanks in advance

    • January 7, 2011 6:15 am

      Darcy, I don’t hold out much hope for us here in Cascadia, (at least on the west side of the Cascades) being able to graze year-round, because we are in a non-brittle environment, east of the Cascades in a brittle environment, maybe. About 60 days into the rainy season, our grass (stockpiled) loses quite a bit of it’s nutritional value. However with rotational grazing we have cut our hay feeding time down about 3 months – from 6 months to 3 months. That’s a lot of savings, and makes a huge difference.

      Contrary to what I have seen written on popular forums, if a cow looks and acts hungry they usually are – either they need more feed, or better quality. That being said I manage my milk cow and calf differently than the beef herd. With an acre or two of good grass in our location, you could easily keep a milk cow and calf in good condtion and graze at least something 9 or 10 months of the year. Caveats to that would be: the pasture needs to be high quality, no dog fennel, pineapple weed, Queen Anne’s lace, ox eye daisy etc. All indicator plants that the soil is in need of attention. If you have areas like that, that doesn’t count in the acreage allotment.

      To properly rotationally graze your one cow, you need to just give her a size of paddock that will provide her what she will eat in one day. By giving small paddocks you give your land adequate manure coverage, it guarantees rest, and rest is important because it allows the grass to grow back and the parasites to die off for lack of a host. Come back too soon, and you risk infestation, and you really set your grass back by 30% or more for the entire year. Of course the size of paddock will vary due to grass growth and time of year.

  13. May 1, 2011 1:10 pm

    Good post. The one before was good too. Sometime I wish our land hand more rolls in it so I could clearly distinguish the keylines. I know they are there – I just can’t see them as the land is too flat.

    I’m muddling through fence construction right now. I’m glad you said it is easy to overbuild. I think my original “design” was way to complicated, and cost way too much.

    I think I’ll just start with what I have and cut it up haphazardly for a while until I get used to moving the cows, and understand how my land works before I put anything too permanent in place.

    Thanks for the notes and ideas.

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