I never really gave pasture management any thought when we first started raising livestock. I hadn’t heard of rotational grazing before. You just throw them in a pasture and they’ll eat and grass will grow back and repeat, right? Same as a lawn mower. (Except your new mower doubles as fertilizer.) I’ve spent most of my life living in farm country, that’s what it looks like all the other farms are doing, so it must be right.
After struggling with marginal pasture because we weren’t managing our livestock for good grass growth, we began to see the quality of our pasture go down… and when you’re working on a small scale, every inch counts.
Over the years, we learned about the rotational grazing systems that were being used on small farms, and wondered if we could transfer those management techniques to an even smaller scale and reap any benefits.
It turns out there are many advantages to using rotational grazing on a homestead. We’ve come to see that it follows patterns of rest that can be seen in creation, and have watched our pastures improve a little more every year.
Reasons to Use Rotational Grazing on a Homestead
When your livestock is munching on the same plants over and over again with no break between, the plant health suffers. The roots don’t grow as deep. Which means it’s not making as much food. Plus, a plant that hasn’t been scalped, gets a chance to recover and grow a bit before the next bite, can make more food (because there’s more surface area to photosynthesize), and grow even more. That means more nutrition in your livestock’s belly and less money going out the door for a feed bill.
Better Root Systems
Stronger roots and more plant coverage of the soil means that when it starts to downpour, that water has a better chance of soaking in, instead of running off… and carrying your fertility, or worse yet, your topsoil, away.
Our pasture used to be a horse pasture, and they grazed it right to the ground until it looked like a jungle of weeds the horses wouldn’t touch with almost bare dirt between. Guess whose topsoil is all at the bottom of the hill? Mine. Just before we bought the place, they tried to dig a pond at the bottom of the back pasture and they never dug beyond topsoil and it never held water, so we filled it back in.
A few days ago I was leaving the house in the midst of a torrential downpour. It was raining cats and dogs, and the kids were all excited about the “flood.” The “flood” is a prime example of how managing your pastures through rotational grazing can reduce run-off.
The first image is of our neighbor’s pasture. It was taken from the top of our pasture next to the barn (which you can see in the middle photo). You can literally see the sheen of the water running down the hill! At the bottom of that hill, where the fence line runs, is where our property lines meet. The second and third photos are sitting at the property line. The one looking back up the hill towards our pasture and the other down the property line.
There is nothing to cause such a stark difference in the way those 2 hillsides are handling the rain water other than the way that we manage our livestock (and therefore grass.)
When they don’t have the chance to always go for the choice grass, and it’s go hungry or eat what isn’t their favorite, livestock will graze a larger variety of forage. That’s less waste in your pasture (and less chance of that plant going to seed and making more plants that your animals don’t prefer.) This is why we rotationally graze sheep (or try to) behind the cows. They’re even less choosy than the cows and will eat weeds and other plants the cows have left behind.
We all get into ruts, don’t we? We all have patterns or habits we follow and livestock are no different. When left to themselves, they’ll walk the same paths, hang out under the same trees when it’s hot outside, and so on. This means that those portions of the pasture are being ruined by the compaction that walking over them again and again will create. Our former horse pasture still, after a couple years, had trouble taking off each year in the paths the horses used to walk every day. We finally ended up using those paths as walkways between paddocks instead of creating new, perhaps more efficient ones. At least it’s still only one lane that is being compacted.
Where your animals go, the manure goes with them. Which means that if you don’t control where they go, you don’t control where the fertility that comes out their back end goes. Rotational grazing on the homestead distributes that fertile love a little more evenly throughout the pasture so everyone gets a boost.
Longer Growing Season
Done right, it is possible to keep your animals on grass longer into the fall/winter by using rotational grazing. This is something that you can look forward to a few years down the road as your skill in management increases. What you’ll find is the fertile land sends up shoots sooner in the spring. And in the fall you will end up with paddocks of “stockpiled” grass. Which is pretty much like hay standing in the field that animals would much rather eat than real hay.
Here is a satellite comparison of our pastures showing the difference 3 years made. The diagonal line about ⅔ of the way over is the property line to another neighbor with horses.
Because most of us don’t have an ideal pasture to start with, it’s going to need some improvement. By using rotational grazing and getting more forage for the space you have, it’s possible to take a portion of the pasture out of commission while you reseed and allow those plants to get established. If you have the space, take 1/7th of your pasture and rest it for a year, sow new seed without allowing any grazing. Rotate through those 7 sections one by one and then your whole pasture will have been rejuvenated without the expense of doing it all at once.
Because they’re interacting with you more, your animals will be friendlier, more socialized, and more trusting. On a small scale, and especially if you have children, that’s an advantage. While we always make sure that any animal on our farm is “Grain Bucket Trained,” a friendly, social animal is much more likely to come when called and be used to getting moved. They can trust that interactions with you are positive and have a reward at the end.
This collection of photos shows one corner of our pasture over the course of the 4 growing seasons we have lived here. To give you reference , the row of pines is our neighbors (you can see the multi-stranded white fence of theirs). The deciduous trees in photo one are at the end of that row of pines. In the sheep photo, that tree line is off-camera to the left.
Rotational grazing keeps livestock from coming back over the same ground and being reintroduced to the parasites as quickly. And, more beneficially, it keeps them from taking bites as low on the plant. You know, where the larvae are waiting for their next host to consume them.
More Animals, Less Space
I almost hesitate to mention this benefit because I think for the small scale homesteader with limited acreage, we shouldn’t rotationally graze with increasing our herd or flock density being the main objective. In a drought situation that could come back to haunt you and I think it’s best to have too much forage you could put up as hay rather than not enough and you have to buy in hay. But, in theory if you are able to increase the amount of grass you grow (consistently) then you can build your herd or flock.
Better Animal Husbandry
Another advantage to spending the extra time with your livestock while you’re out there moving paddocks in the summer is that you can better assess their body condition. You can know if they’re getting enough to eat and adjust their paddock size accordingly.
And it allows you to keep a sharper eye out for illness. Our milk cow developed mastitis one year several weeks after she was dried up prior to having her next calf. If we hadn’t been out there moving the paddocks, we might not have noticed in time because she was on pasture, her water trough was full, she didn’t need to come in for milking, and so not as much attention was getting paid to her. When we saw she wasn’t standing at the line, eager to get that first fresh bite in the next paddock, we knew something was wrong and called the vet out.
Now that you’ve seen the advantages of using rotational grazing on your homestead, let’s talk about how to put it into practice.
There seems to be as many ways to rotationally graze as there are farmers who are doing it. And it can get complicated. Down to counting blades of grass, the science of the nutrients in the different stages of grass growth in different types of forage. Herd (“mob”) behavior gets factored in, which is more often than not something that we as homesteader’s can’t take into consideration. Two cows or 3 goats are hardly a herd and they don’t seem to behave the same way that’s described in the “mob” systems. At least mine don’t.
Because I want you to give rotational grazing a chance to improve your pasture, reduce your off-season feed bill, and make your livestock healthier, I’m going to keep it simple… a “Rotational Grazing for Dummies,” if you will.
Rotational Grazing for Dummies
Because your pasture will improve over time, your paddock sizes this year won’t be the same as next year. Precipitation variations from year to year will also make a difference whether your paddocks will be larger or smaller in a given year. That’s why it’s a really good idea to make permanent paths and perimeter fencing, but movable paddocks. We like this fencing the best. It is more durable than any other we’ve used and you get less loss at the end of a long line because of the extra strands & mixed metals. Portable fencing systems are really cost effective and don’t require any of the labor or equipment it takes to make permanent fencing solutions.
How Big to Make the Paddocks
The size of your paddocks will be determined by a number of factors. And in the end, all you’re going to do is guess, observe, and make adjustments.
How frequently you will be moving your livestock?
How big is your herd/flock?
What is the quality of your forage?
Those factors will all determine how big the area you allow your livestock to graze on each day. You can google search for more info, get real technical about it, there’s math and everything involved, or you can work off trial and error. If there’s too much grass left at the end of the day, give them less. If you check on them at the end of the day and their rumen is empty (here’s how to check that) then you need a bigger space the next day.
So how often do you move to a new paddock?
Moving once a week is better than not at all. If that’s the only time you can manage to move your livestock, some chance for rest and regrowth is better than none. I wouldn’t go any longer than that without it starting to offset the benefits of rotational grazing such as compaction. With our cows, who thrive on routine, and our schedules, we find it works best to make paddocks sized for daily transitions.
It also depends on the season. In the spring, when the grass is fresh, you’ll be able to move the animals through much more quickly than later in the year when growth slows down. In the spring, we could move them twice a day if we had the time so that they get to everything before it goes to seed.
What you’re looking for when deciding if they are done in their paddock is to find a balance between how much is trampled, how much has been soiled, and how tall is the remaining grass. It doesn’t matter if it looks like there is still grass there they can eat. If it’s been soiled or trampled, it doesn’t matter how green or tall it is, they won’t touch it.
I superimposed lines on our pasture so you could see about what our paddocks look like. The white lines are permanent pathways. The ones closer to the barn obviously get more use. Wherever there is not permanent fencing we use pound-in t-posts to run polywire. They are a semi-permanent post in that they’re a pain to get out of the ground, especially as summer progresses and the ground dries out.
The black lines indicate a weekly (or so) line that we’ll run using step-in pig tail posts and polywire.
The yellow dotted lines are the ones we would move on a daily basis. (I only made a few to give you an idea of what that might look like in a year.) Usually one person will grab one side, another person the other and we’ll step it in at the far side of the new paddock. It’s about a 5-minute-a-day job.
You can put a “backline” up to keep the cows from walking back to where they already were, but for us we choose to leave the water trough at the top of the weeks paddocks and let them go back up for it. That does mean that more manure and urine collects in that one area around the trough than we would prefer, but that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make so the kids have an easier time of it when they help with chores.
After you have moved your livestock to their next paddock and you notice that there is a lot of weeds left behind, I can’t recommend to you enough that you start a pasture clipping system. Those weeds will go to seed and take over your pasture. Pretty counterproductive. We use sheep and electric netting to minimize the amount of clipping we need to do even further by running the sheep through after our cows. After that if there are still weeds left, we will use a scythe to cut down any that’s left. You can also use a brush hog, but a scythe is cheaper and creates less compaction. We use one as a last resort when we’re really pressed for time.
If you look at the aerial photos of our barn you will see a dirt patch on the north side. That is our sacrifice area. We “sacrifice” having any grass growing in that spot so that we can preserve the rest of the pasture during the winter from the animals grazing it to soil or compacting it. They spend most of their time though in the barn where we collect their manure in a deep bedding system so we can compost it the next summer.
Finally, I’m going to recommend you consider introducing pastured poultry into your grazing system. They are an excellent source of quick protein for your family table. They can really make your pasture improve by leaps and bounds after just one season. By using a chicken tractor that you move forward onto fresh grass twice a day at meal time you can control exactly where their fertility is deposited and the difference it makes is astounding. We raise our meat chickens in 2 batches so that too much of the pasture isn’t being occupied by them at one time. Next year we’ll run them through a completely new spot that hasn’t been covered in the past few years. There is a ton of information available online about how to build a chicken tractor and raise pastured poultry.
Though there is additional time and expense that goes into a pasture management system that uses rotational grazing, we are convinced that it is well worth the effort. The benefits far outweigh those detriments, especially when you factor in that well-fed, healthier livestock mean more nutritious food that you serve to those that gather around your family table.
More on Raising a Family Milk Cow
New to raising a dairy cow on the homestead? Check out these other articles to get started on the right foot!
Quinn and her family have been homesteading in central Ohio for over 15 years, many of which she spent sharing their experiences and encouraging other homesteaders at Reformation Acres until 2018. She is the founder of the SmartSteader homestead management app and is currently the Executive Assistant for Homesteaders of America.
Besides raising their main crop of 8 children, Quill Haven Farm revolves around the Queen of the Homestead, the family milk cow. In addition to cheesemaking and other home dairy, the cow also provides skim milk to fatten a few hogs every year, raise up a beef calf, supplement the feed for their flock of laying hens & broilers, and beautiful compost for their 14,000 square feet of organic gardens.