Skip to content

It’s Complicated

April 10, 2013

Warning!  Rotational grazing may be hazardous to your health.  Rotational grazing often is considered a gateway drug to High Density grazing and stockpiling of forage.  Aha moments may occur while you are under the influence of rotational grazing.  Other side effects may occur, such as a stiff neck from walking around in a daze looking for the perfect cow pie consistency, you may find yourself staring at cows’ backends and stomachs, blurting out terms like forb and kelp at inappropriate moments, and having grass or compost pile envy.  Seek professional help at grazing conferences if  you experience any of the aforementioned side effects.  Do not remove tag under penalty of law.

Grazing strategy?  Well, it depends.  This is the how, when, and why of starting the grazing season on our farm.  Your reasons may differ.  There is no one best solution to everyone’s grazing problems.

Out on pasture

Out on pasture

This is my laundry list of things I want to achieve when I move the cows back on to pasture in the spring:

♦ Quit feeding hay – it’s expensive even if you make your own like we do.  If you have to buy all your hay – arrgh.

♦ Get the cows on grass before it gets too lush so we can avoid any bloat issues.  A dry, frost-free day is perfect for the first day.

♦ We want to graze all the hay ground at least once before we drop the hay ground out of the rotation.

♦ We want to start detoxing the cows with nature’s great tonic – chlorophyll, in order to prepare them for calving in late spring.

house field

house field

We start grazing the field next to the barn where the cows are wintered for two reasons.  1) they are right there and it involves little work to build a fake lane then open the gate.  2) This field is always cut for hay due to the county road issues.  I will not bring the cows back and forth across the road with small calves.  The calves never get it when they are little, and we don’t care to repeat having any moms and babies separated by a busy road.  They always find their way back together at around 2 am.  In the middle of the county road.  So once the cows  leave this field they will not be back until next winter.

grass hay & straw

grass hay & straw

Since we don’t sell our hay, we are less interested in quantity (tonnage) and more interested in second cut type quality.  To that end, by grazing all the hay ground at least once, we are in essence getting the second cut for hay.  In my area we never can get a second cut anyway, it is pure foolishness to do so here.  (Again, where you live multiple cuttings may make sense.)  Also by grazing lightly now, the cows can shorten some of the taller grasses that will shade out the clovers and forbs that will make an appearance once the warmer weather arrives.  We do not get hay cutting weather until July.  By leaving this field to grow the entire time we would in essence be choking out most broadleaf plants in favor of the taller grasses and moving succession to a more monocrop type of hayfield.  Pasture succession is a dance, feather steps, progressive rock, and hope you’re in perfect hold.  That’s why they say grazing is art and science.  Planning rest and disturbance are key.

house field

house field

Even though I am dividing this roughly ten-acre field into three large paddocks I still need to be mindful about the keylines.  Paddock 1 looks flat in the photo above, but in the photo below you can see the slope and break point on top the ridge.  Our grass productivity took a jump once we understood the keyline concept and no longer grazed north and south-facing slopes together.  This field has permanent perimeter fence, the red lines denote the temporary electric fence.

keyline delineation

keyline delineation

full rumen

full rumen

I am transitioning the cows onto grass from dry hay, so it is just that, a transition.  It takes the rumen 5 days or so to adjust to a change in feed.  To avoid any tummy aches, I stuffed the cows with 8 bales of hay the day we planned on moving them out.  They ate, we built and repaired fence.  The second day I fed them two bales of hay out on the pasture.  They were happy to have a little brown to go with all that green but they left a little behind in favor of grazing.  This morning I did not offer hay and checked manure and rumens to see how things were going.

rumen buffering

rumen buffering

Everyone had a full rumen, and I didn’t find any runny manure.  Good signs.

Nice cow pie!

Nice cow pie!

These two cow pies show all the variation I could find in the field.  A nice firm one and one that was a little runnier.  This shows me that the grass isn’t too washy for them, and that they are adjusting well from the dry diet to lusher grass diet.  If I see runny manure, I can add hay.  Runny manure shows too that the cow is eating too far down the stem and that I am grazing the grass too short.  I don’t want to devastate these paddocks I want to lightly graze them, and move on.  It helps to think of it this way, short grass = spacious paddocks, tall grass = small paddocks.

so so

so so

July 2012

July 2012

So that’s how it going here in the pasture.  Ideally if I had enough land, or less cows I would have enough stockpiled (last year’s growth) pasture to start the cows on and I wouldn’t be easing the cows onto grass in large paddocks.  But I don’t, so this is what we have found to work out for us.  We still need to make hay for winter, and our hay yields have went up since we implemented rotational grazing.  Our hay needs have also went down, we feed at least 3 less months these days.

I no longer fear making grazing mistakes, because I know I will make mistakes, its inevitable.  It’s in the doing of the “right” and “wrong” where the learning comes from.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2013 12:01 pm

    Funny, I visited a cattle ranch here on Sunday and so was better prepared to hear your discussion of how the cattle need time to adjust to grass…..thanks for the discussion. I think I will share this one with some of the local farmers.

  2. Tara permalink
    April 10, 2013 12:42 pm

    Love this post! So timely for us as this will be our first full season doing rotational grazing.

    Regarding your statement about if you had stockpiled growth, can you explain that for someone that’s still a newbie? We have a couple of pastures that had one cut of hay taken off them, but probably could have had two if we wanted to (we didn’t) so there’s a lot of brown, tall dead stuff from last year. Is this what you are alluding to? If so, how would you use it?

    You’re a gem and your blog is like a friend hanging out with me on the farm, teaching me things I need to learn. Thank you.

    • April 10, 2013 1:57 pm

      Tara, thanks so much.

      Yes, the dead brown stuff is good. Your cows (or whatever stock you have) will trample that in while grazing there, and that is a goldmine for building soil.

  3. Nicole permalink
    April 10, 2013 2:34 pm

    Could you plant some type of crop for your cows to eat in the winter, instead of getting hay for them? Then they could do the work for you and harvest instead of you having to haul hay.

    • Kristin permalink
      April 12, 2013 4:13 am

      I like to seed annual ryegrass on the pastures near my house for late winter/early Spring grazing for the milk cows. It is only about 2 acres we sow and the cost is around $35. I still feed hay as it is not 100% of their forage requirements but it gives them green earlier than my other pastures and does lower my hay need (unlike Nita, we buy hay).

    • April 12, 2013 5:22 am

      Nicole, not really without it being a detriment to our established pastures. We’re equipped to make hay, not crops 😦

  4. Lisa T. permalink
    April 10, 2013 2:48 pm

    I really enjoy the grazing posts… always learning from you. Thanks!

  5. April 10, 2013 2:48 pm

    I have major grass envy! Because we have so much bog, the larger part of our acreage is covered in reed canarygrass. We’re working with a friend, who is a native plant specialist, on some strategies for getting rid of the canarygrass, but haven’t had the time, money or energy to undertake the project yet.

    In the mean time, the goats graze it, but it isn’t quantity or quality enough to replace purchased orchard grass hay & alfalfa. And our herd just doubled in size, thanks to an epic baby boom. Our hay bill would make you weep! :\

  6. April 10, 2013 3:17 pm

    Thanks for explaining this Nita, I am learning more and more that farming is a dance. We try really hard to plan ahead, but we never know what the weather will do and we have to be constantly observing our pasture and our cattle and ready to change plans at any time.

    • April 12, 2013 5:18 am

      Liz, I know exactly what you mean, that’s why the “plans” are just an idea in my head right now, you never know what the grazing season weather will bring. No flexibility on the part of the grazier is harder to overcome than any thing Mother Nature throws at us.

  7. April 10, 2013 6:22 pm

    I love the piles of poop in the pictures. We’re getting our first milk cow in about ten more days, and I imagine I will be walking around after her looking at her poop, and she will be wondering what I’m doing. She’s retiring from a dairy, which means she probably hasn’t had someone obsessing about her quite like we’re about to….

  8. permalink
    April 10, 2013 8:12 pm

    Good morning Margie amd I(paul) ferm at Balgowam in South Africa Thanks for the informative postings Best whishes Paul Leisegang
    Sent via my BlackBerry from Vodacom – let your email find you!

  9. April 11, 2013 3:55 am

    It always is, isn’t it. Complicated that is.

    I make lots of mistakes, but I find also that many of my “mistakes” have had beneficial unintended consequences. Start somewhere, just start – I tend to be an over-analyzer which can lead to never starting at all.

    Last summer, I counted on second cut for my hay supply and figured wrong. Growth slowed due to drought (unusual here) which means I had to buy hay which may end up being the event that breaks me… time will tell 🙂

    • April 12, 2013 5:25 am

      AMF, it’s rare here to get the weather for a second cut. But many folks try. Grazing that growth with the cows adding the fertilizer makes more sense for me.

  10. April 11, 2013 5:00 am

    I have grass envy as well. We have sandy soil and only one grazer who gets very picky after her first pass through the pasture. Thanks for the info on keylines! I’m wondering if this might help us.

  11. April 11, 2013 8:57 am

    I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench working and re-working my grazing plan. I was hoping for at least a snapshot of your plan book. I’ve been grazing small portions of section E for nearly a month now. I say grazing but the grass has only been growing for 2 weeks. It’s been a lot of feeding hay on pasture, building up a layer of litter and letting the cows spread their own manure subsection by subsection. Now it’s time to mash the accelerator because you can no longer tell where the cows have been and I’ve got more clover than I have ever seen in my life out there…of course, this is the first time the ground has been allowed to rest.

    • April 11, 2013 9:42 am

      What plan book? Yeah for clover!

      • April 11, 2013 10:43 am

        Sorry. Crazy day. Grazing chart. I was sure you had a post a few years ago…I thought it was the keyline pie post…showing your grazing chart in the background. Was really hoping you would dive into that.

  12. Kristin permalink
    April 12, 2013 4:17 am

    Thanks for doing such a great job answering my question, Nita! As usual, of course. I’ve waited too long to start! So as soon as this latest rain storm dries out, I’ll get them out there! I’ve read many a grazing book, magazine, and newspaper and no one explains things so clearly as you.

    • April 12, 2013 5:33 am

      Kristin, you’re welcome. It’s never too late to start, there are so many factors to take into consideration, I am sure your weather is much different than ours. It’s cool here now, and the grass growth will slow considerably. Folks like Greg Judy like to lay on the guilt trip about only grazing with stockpile, and no hay feeding but it just doesn’t always work the same way for other folks. I’ve not been very successful buying hay that my cows would eat, and it doesn’t cost any less, they just won’t eat it. Even Jim Gerrish admits that the area of the US I live in stockpiled grass has no nutrition in about 60 days or so after our fall rain begins. I have seen that to be true, my cows will loose condition in December if I don’t start feeding them stored sunlight (hay).

      • Kristin permalink
        April 12, 2013 2:30 pm

        Last year I was grazing by the first week in March. This year, it is a cool Spring (in Tennessee) and we are at least a month behind. It is only this last 7 days or so that suddenly everything is growing like mad! Even the trees have leafed out in 5 days!

        As for grazing, I just know how everyone eats the clover before the fescue and so have been waiting until the clover has gotten a few inches on it. I see now that it might be “too rich” for them to start with. But I’ll watch and feed out some hay as necessary (if they’ll eat it).

        I don’t feel guilty about not feeding stockpile. I’m not Joel Salatin or Greg Judy. Your smaller scale if far more applicable to so many of us!!

        When I buy in hay (yes, it can be hard to get hay, particularly that the milk cows will eat AND make milk on) I am at least adding fertility. It has improved our original property considerably. And with the number of animals & acreage we have, it does not make sense for us to cut hay.

        There does seem to be a dearth of information on mob grazing in the South East. For now, if I can graze 8-9 months of the year, I’m very happy. In theory, I should be able to graze year round.


  1. And so it begins.... - Thistle Hill Farm - Blog
  2. Throwback at Trapper Creek.... - Thistle Hill Farm - Blog
  3. Maisy’s Big Adventure – Chicken Fried Happiness

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: