By Edmund Brown
Two weeks ago I mentioned rotational grazing. I thought this week perhaps it would be interesting to show all the hardware I use to keep the cows on fresh grass every day.
First, a quick summary of the manifold reasons that rotational grazing is a worthwhile practice. Grasses and ruminants co-evolved to benefit each other. Over millions of years grasses and some forbs developed the ability to regrow quickly after being burned, bitten, or trampled. Large herbivores grew digestive tracts that can breakdown the relatively recalcitrant food available in plant matter of all sorts. In their symbiotic relationship with cattle, grasses give up their leaves a few times per year as feed in exchange for large grazers killing off woody vegetation like trees and shrubs that gradually take over prairies given enough years of ecological succession. It takes little time with cows in one’s life to appreciate the destructive power of a herd of 1000+ lb bodies looking for lunch. I can well imagine how herds of wild aurochs, deer, elk, bison, and horses (and mammoths and others farther back) would quite effectively keep large tracts of land open and grassy. Here’s a picture of some Amur Honeysuckle bushes after a single day of visitation from my cattle.
The twiggy almost leafless shrubs on the left were exposed to 24 hours of cattle pressure. The fully leafed one on the right was protected by the portable electric fence (see below). A few more years subjected to regular browsing and scratching pressure and these shrubs will be dead and gone and the ground will be covered with grass. Honeysuckle is a prolific “invasive” plant in my area. Maybe we should use biological control on more plant species our culture would like to dial down in prevalence, sheep and goats could do great work in many places cattle would be cumbersome… But I’m getting waylaid into a topic I’ve already written about in this blog. Back to grazing.
Rotational grazing is better for the pasture plants. Brief duration graze periods with long rest time allows for more diversity in the pasture and it gives the pasture time to grow deeper, stronger roots. Every time a plant is mowed, trampled, or grazed the roots die back to keep the leaf:root ratio in balance. If a pasture looks like a carpet, the root layer is similarly short. Roots feed the microbes that create soil and bigger, deeper roots feed more microbes and build soil faster. Growing a big shaggy snarl builds soil better than a smooth, short green rug of grass ever will.
Rotational grazing is also good for animals. Properly managed grazing keeps a good mix of palatable plants available for the entire grazing season. Rotating the grazing also means the animals always leave their manure (and potential parasites) behind. By the time they come back around in their rotation across the farm the old cow plops have broken down and washed away. Another way that it is good for livestock is the habituation to humans the herd develops over time. On some farms every time a human shows up in the field the cattle have a negative experience - round-up, vaccinate, brand, etc. On my farm the herd associates me with fresh food and thus they come when I call.
Rotational grazing is also good for the farmer’s pocketbook. Properly managed pastures yield more grass/acre/year. Also it allows for autumn grass to be “stockpiled” ahead of winter and delay the onset of hay feeding. One of our bigger expenses is purchased feed, so each day we can delay the start of hay feeding saves us a few dollars. There is labor involved in rotational grazing, which has to be debited against the hay cost. But between the environmental, animal welfare, and reduced hay costs, I’m confident that my time is well spent moving the cattle every day.
Here’re the tools necessary to keep everybody where I want them for the time period I've designated they spend there. First we have the portable fence. I'm partial to polybraid rather than polytwine. It's thicker, stronger, and more visible to the animals than twine.
I store the polybraid on simple plastic reels and use a little tension on the handle to pull the polybraid into the paddock fence where it can pick up a charge of electricity. Lots of grazers use geared reels, but I've never felt compelled to pay the extra cost for geared reels. I do all the fencing and moving on foot, so winding in the wire goes about as fast as I can walk. I don't see a geared reel saving me any time.
The wire is held up for the day's paddock on 1/2 fiberglass rods. If you look closely you can see I glue in a little metal shank on the bottom of the post and use a stainless spring clip (by my hand) to hold the wire to the post. I've used all manner of step-in posts over the years, but these home-made ones are by far the best. I can carry a whole run of them in a PVC quiver (a golf bag would also work well), and thus lay out the braid and the posts in a single pass.
Cattle need *a lot* of water every day. I get it to them with 50 gallon plastic tubs and float valves.
And finally, the animals need to have salt and minerals if I want them to grow to their full potential. My soils are deficient in several mandatory trace minerals like copper and selenium. Think of this as a vitamin pack for the herd. I recently made this mineral feeder because my old system was too cumbersome. So far I'm very happy with the new unit - proud enough for bookend images on this blog post!