The Southwest Booster
Pasture Management – Adopting a rotational grazing system can improve pasture health and productivity
What type of grazing system do you have, and is it improving pasture health and productivity?
From a pasture management perspective, many producers already employ rotational grazing principles on their operation. A typical grazing rotation may look like this for many producers:
- a spring calving pasture close to the headquarters;
- one or more summer paddocks farther from the headquarters;
- a fall field for grazing during weaning time; and
- a winter field.
In the above examples, many times the winter field is in excellent ecological health because it was only grazed in the dormant season when plants were not growing and most resistant to grazing, while calving and summer-grazed fields are usually in poor to fair ecological health due to heavy use early in the grazing season.
As a range management extension specialist, we are often asked what more (in addition to rotational grazing) can be done to improve the health and productivity of a pasture? Here are a few management suggestions to further fine-tune a rotational grazing system.
Changing season of use ensures that the same field doesn’t get used at the same time each year. This means having a rotational grazing plan so that grazing occurs at a different time each year. Some may ask why is this even important? Well, pastures can be very diverse and there are benefits to maintaining this diversity. If a particular field is grazed at the same time each year there will be certain plants favoured and if continued for a series of years, the entire plant community will change to reflect this. There is a saying if you do what you’ve always done, you will continue to get what you always got and this is very true from a pasture management perspective as well. We are creatures of habit and like to do the same thing over and over, such as grazing fields in the same sequential order year after year.
The use of a deferred rotational grazing system can be one way to improve pasture health, where the manager uses deferral (or delay) of grazing to enable vulnerable plants to regrow and recover from a previous grazing event. Once the first field is grazed in the spring and the herd removed, there is a long rest period from grazing to enable the plants to fully recover and recharge root energy.
A deferred rotation grazing system:
(year 1) (year 2) (year 3) (year 4) (year 5) Graze First Third Second Last Graze First Last ( fourth) Graze First Third Second Last Second Last Graze First Third Second Third Second Last Graze First Third * The first field grazed each year is shown in bold, and the grazing sequence is
* Field Number
1 2 3 4
Consider changing the season of use: 2022 2024 2025 2026
changed so that grazing starts in a different field each year.
Another grazing strategy that can help improve pasture health is the adoption of a complementary grazing system, where the manager strategically uses both tame and native (natural) pastures in a managed grazing system. This can be one of the more productive grazing systems, as fields are used to complement each other and grazed at a time that is most suitable for them. Tame pastures are grazed early in the season, while native pastures are grazed later in the season.
A complementary grazing system using a switchback rotation on two seeded (tame) fields and a deferred rotation for three native (natural) fields:
Tame Grass Tame Grass Native Grass Native Grass Native Grass Year *Field 1 Field 2 Field 3 Field 4 Field 5 2022 May June July August September 2023 June May September July August 2024 May June August September July 2025 June May July August September * Fields 1 and 2 are tame grass; fields 3, 4 and 5 are native (natural) grass.
Both tables provide examples of how a planned rotational grazing system can be used to help improve pasture health by changing the time in which a particular field is grazed. The examples also provide the opportunity for longer rest/recovery periods to be built into a pasture system. It is important to point out that there is no overall best grazing system, as each operation is unique and will require individual adaptations. For additional information, reach out to a range management extension specialist by calling 1-866-457-2377.
Information was adapted from an AAFC publication titled Management of Canadian Prairie Rangeland.