I have been learning how to manage grazing with beef cattle on our farms at Virgilina , near the VA/NC line, for most of my life. I have seen the rise of great temporary grazing equipment, the dramatic improvement of electric fence energizers and the wondrous “fault finder” fence tester, among many other great new tools.
Forty years ago I was using tobacco sticks with insulators wired to them, 18 gauge wire that was rolled on a car rim, and a ParMak weed chopper energizer to allocate new strips of stockpiled fescue. Even then with those crude tools compared to what we have today, “strip-grazing” stockpiled fescue was a lot less expensive and easier on the land than feeding hay. At that time Alan Savory was the main person in the US promoting managed grazing.
After going back to school in Arizona in 1982 to get my MS and PhD, I returned to my current job at NCSU in 1990. I met up with Dr. Jim Green and Dr. Paul Mueller who where our forage extension specialists at the time. They each had recently taken a sabbatical in New Zealand, and they returned with a whole new vision for grazing management, in part because of the improved tools like tread-in posts, geared reels, and polywire that they worked with down there. These technologies were just starting to reach our country when they founded the “Amazing Grazing Program”, and they set about doing grazing demonstrations, pasture walks and pasture ecology schools across the state. I arrived about 3 years after they founded Amazing Grazing.
I worked closely with both Jim and Paul, and tried what I learned on the farm at home. By 2000 we were moving cattle frequently using temporary fencing, and we have continued to use what is now called “Adaptive Grazing Management” since that time. There are a great many grazing techniques you can use, and a successful adaptive grazing manager knows when to apply which techniques. One of the mantras of adaptive management is “never say never and never say always”. All practices ranging from very high impact “mob grazing” with multiple moves in a day to continuous grazing at a moderately light stocking rate have a place somewhere and you need to create your management program based on your own situation.
Grazing “systems” have come and gone, but what these systems are named doesn’t matter that much as there are clear biological principles that apply to all systems. Nearly all grazing management systems are based on the concept of controlled access to plants, such that there are relatively short bouts of grazing and long rest periods. During the rest period, plants regrow both foliage and roots, and major biological forces like earthworms restore porosity. There is also an accumulation of organic matter, all of which contribute to soil health. There are many ways to achieve this improved soil health in your pastures.
Some advisors promote having many permanent paddocks so that animals can be moved very frequently without the need for temporary fencing. In this kind of system cattle are moved daily or even more frequently, and it has recently been called “Adaptive Multi-Paddock Grazing” (or AMP grazing). Others promote a more flexible system using temporary fencing with large permanent paddocks, giving flexibility in number and size of subdivisions.
Several years ago I visited the Birdwell and Clark Ranch in Texas with my friend Dr. Glenn Rogers to see their grazing system, which can be best described as AMP. They run about 5,000 stocker cattle each summer in one group and they rotate them through 140 permanent paddocks, mostly with single strand high tensile wire with a lot of power. The cattle are moved about 2 to 6 times a day depending on the amount of grass present and the size of the paddock. They move the cattle by raising the single strand high tensile about 8 feet off the ground using PVC pipes, and the herd moves under it to the next paddock. If you visit their website (https://www.birdwellandclarkranch.com/) you will find a link to an amazing video of them moving cattle which looks like an amoeba from the air! Standing by the UTV while those cattle oozed around us for 10 minutes was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It is amazing to think about the dramatic change from the traditional way this ranch was managed just a few decades ago. The quality of their range is improving dramatically, and they are growing a lot more grass and stocking more cattle than they could in the past.
This style of management works well in a very large setting, but is not as easy to implement on smaller farms. It is critical that you develop methods to manage your pasture that are consistent with your farm size, your skills, and your availability to work with the animals; that is adaptive grazing management. The Texas ranch has enough revenue to have full-time employees that move the cattle, and they do that all day, 7 days a week. Small farms often only have the owner and their family to do the work, so you might want something less intensive. Coming up with a farm plan that fits your lifestyle is the key to a long-lasting system.
Our main farm in VA has about 350 acres of pasture and it is laid out as 24 permanent pastures, each with access to a water source. If we were to subdivide as much as the Texas Ranch, there would only be about 2.5 acres in each cell and we would have a big job of fence building, water development, and managing around differences in forage availability. Being a cow-calf operation that is finishing many of the cattle we also have multiple groups of animals. At any one time we will have about 5 groups, so to manage all groups with permanent fencing would be very impractical.
In order to match animal requirements with forage availability we use temporary fencing, and the technique I most often employ is best called “frontal grazing”. Sometimes this is called “strip- grazing” but it is not quite the same thing in that strip-grazing uses a “back fence” to keep animals from going back to areas of the pasture they have already grazed.
Frontal grazing is commonly used when grazing stockpiled fescue, and most readers will be familiar with that system. You enter a pasture that has been cross-fenced with polywire such that cattle have access to the water source and a small area of pasture. As that area is grazed down the manager gives fresh grass in strips, either by setting up another polywire fence ahead of the first one (sometimes called a flip-flop system), or by simply moving the fence over a bit. This works especially well when the grazing front is long, so that the fence doesn’t need to be moved very far.
One of my first experiences working with a farmer on frontal grazing was in Alamance County, NC in the early 1990s. The farmer was feeding stocker calves free-choice soybean hulls and frontal grazing stockpiled tall fescue through the winter. The cattle had amazing performance and he was able to stretch a very limited amount of grass all winter for this large group. Twice a day as he walked along and moved the fence about 10 feet, all the cattle would line up and he could easily see any slow or sick ones. The cattle were also accustomed to having him on foot around them so they were very tame and he didn’t have trouble getting them in if they needed attention. It made a lasting impression on me.
We always have used frontal grazing during the stockpiled fescue- grazing season, but I have also found it to be very useful all year-round. In our typical management we will frontal graze and allow animals to back graze up to 10 days before moving to a new permanent pasture. You may have been taught that there will be enough regrowth of pasture after 5 to 7 days to where animals will return to regraze those plants, which weakens them. This is true, but it is not always possible with the size of our pastures to keep it to the “5-day rule” so it is a rule I break from time to time. In situations where I expect an extended period with access to the grazed area we leave a little more residual forage early on, so that if we do see animals grazing in the back graze area it is generally the residual forage they are after, and we can increase the size of the allocation the next day. As long as they are getting high forage availability and at least moderate quality forage on the front, they will rarely spend much time in the back grazing area. Then, once we are off to the next pasture there is a long rest period before we return so the pasture recovers adequately. We also might put up a back fence after 5 days in situations where the grass is really growing fast.
When cows are adapted to this system it is amazing how easy it is to manage. I generally walk along the fence pulling up the posts, move the fence over by dragging the wire the distance I want to move it, and then walking back and setting up the posts. As long as the cows are not real hungry, and they are in the rhythm of regular moving, they will wait for me to move the wire instead of charging ahead and over the wire on the ground. This is not to say you can never have trouble with that method, and you have to stay on alert and work quick. Sometimes it makes more sense to set up a new line ahead of the old one, and you have to make that decision as you go.
This approach to allocating grass is especially helpful if I have to be gone for a day or two from the farm. Given the larger pasture size and my sense of how much area it takes each day, I can allocate 2 to 4 days of grass so my farm sitter just has to check water. It is also very helpful during calving as the cows line up on the fresh strip, and those with new calves are generally in the grazed area where they are easy to find and work with.
We have been using this basic rotational grazing technique now for 22 years, and the controlled animal impact is starting to really build soil health and forage diversity on our farm. We had a pretty terrible early summer with little rain in May and June this year. It looked like a bad year to decide not to put out fertilizer! Since that time we have had good rains, and the pastures have quickly improved. We recently weaned the calves onto a Quick-n-Big crabgrass pasture that had previously been used for winter feeding. We had a great stand of crabgrass, and using frontal grazing to feed the calves twice a day has tamed them down, and made them realize that I am the source of their daily feed, even though they are yet to see a bucket.
As you read this, I hope you are also having a good season. I know that for most of us the rains finally came in July, but I have been to spots that still have had no significant rain all summer. I continue to be amazed at how using the basic concepts of adaptive grazing management over the last two decades has changed our farm. When I look back I realize that I could not manage this place if I had a high stocking rate, a lot of hay making, and a long winter feeding season like in the past. I can now easily get around and move fences each day as I described in just a few hours, and have the comfort of seeing every group each day and knowing things are really under control.
Over the next few years the Amazing Grazing Program will be gearing up to teach adaptive grazing workshops focusing on “The Power of One Wire”. We will start this program off with an on-line introduction to Pastureland Ecology, and then follow up with on-farm workshops intended to get you started with adaptive grazing management. We’ll see you somewhere down the road!
Photo caption. Frontal grazing weaned calves on stockpiled Quick-N-Big Crabgrass.
~ Matt Poore, for Carolina Cattle Connection. This is a preview of an article written for the Carolina Cattle Connection, the official publication of the NC and SC Cattlemen’s Associations.
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion. For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org