Throughout Lee County you can find numerous pasture fields that are home to beef cattle, horses and goats. Here in the Southeast, with our longer growing season and variety of forages, we could potentially graze our livestock year round. And while we see livestock out “grazing” in the pasture, unfortunately we find we truly are not managing those pastures to their potential.
As I’ve told many producers — “we need to be grass farmers first, livestock producers second.” One of the best management tools in becoming a “grass farmer” is by utilizing controlled or rotational grazing.
Interest in rotational grazing has been on the rise in recent years throughout the United States. Factors that have contributed to this may be the increase in feed and fertilizer prices, as well as the demand for grass-fed meats. The simple explanation of rotational grazing is taking a large pasture field and dividing it up into smaller paddocks. This can be easily done on land that has permanent parameter fencing by simply dividing the large pasture up into smaller paddocks with the use of portable or temporary fencing. By creating smaller pastures, it forces the animal to graze what is there, instead of that animal walking large acreage and nibbling here and there, under-utilizing the pasture forages.
The amount of pasture forage actually consumed over a growing season with continuous grazing or stocking is only 35 percent of what is actually produced. That is a lot of wasted forage and money! In comparison, a pasture that is rotationally grazed with 1-3 day rotation intervals can typically have over 70 percent of the growth consumed. That’s putting your animals to work for you and becoming a grass farmer!
Once established controlled grazing systems are very economical and can be easily managed. Paddock design should be based on landscape, land productivity, water availability, and the number and types of animals in the system.
Depending on the number of animals and the species of grass and legumes in the pasture system, grazing should be no closer than three inches for most forages including Bermuda and fescue. Warm season grasses such as switchgrasss, bluestem and gama grass should not be grazed under six inches. When grasses reach this point, landowners should rotate livestock to the next paddock and target the recovery period for 30-35 days before the pasture is again grazed to prevent overgrazing and stress on the forage.
During periods of heavy growth, some areas may be hayed and the forage stored or stockpiled for supplemental feeding during the later part of summer or winter months.
Cool season grasses (fescue) and legumes (clover, alfalfa) are ideally grazed from March to June and then late August to late October. This allows our warm season grasses to be grazed from June to August — making an almost ideal year-round grazing system!
For more information on how you can establish a grazing system for your pastures, contact Kim Tungate, Extension Agriculture Agent, Field Crops and Livestock at (919) 775-5624.
Kim Tungate is Extension Agriculture Agent, Field Crops and Livestock for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.