Key to a successful and productive regenerative farming livestock operation is just that – regeneration. Allowing pastures time to grow is requisite for the production of adequate fodder and this type of land and grazing management ensures that pastures have enough time to recover after being grazed by livestock before the animals return to graze once again. In many cases and with the right stock numbers and rotation schedule, carefully planned grazing can even remove the need for hand feeding and dietary supplementation altogether. This process not only allows for optimum pasture an soil health but also, in turn, increased productivity.
What is rotational grazing or planned grazing?
Rotational grazing involves regularly moving animals from paddock to paddock and on to fresh pastures. While many different schedules are possible, intensive rotational grazing is achieved by moving animals regularly. This process is also known as cell grazing – whereby larger paddocks are broken into smaller paddocks (or cells) which then allow the controlled movement of animals from one part of the larger paddock to another. Not to be confused with feedlotting, cell grazing allows animals enough space to graze. If stock numbers and grazing schedules are well managed, these restored pastures will also be lush and plentiful.
This process mimics nature and the way that large herds of beasts pass through grasslands in Africa – grazing heavily, fertilising the ground with their urine and faeces and then returning only when the pastures have fully recovered. With care taken to avoid overgrazing, grazing and natural fertilisation of perennial plants actively stimulates their growth, rather than hindering it as set stocking does.
Over stocking cattle for extended periods of time and subsequent repeated overgrazing will inevitably compromise plant species’ capacity to rejuvenate. Particular damage is done during the time when the plant is trying to grow, particularly if it is grazed repeatedly. However, pastures that are grazed for a short period of time have a greater capacity to restore themselves and are far more resilient than set-stocked pasture, grazed right back to the root level or grazed as soon as new growth appears.
From the perspective of the soils, the presence of animals for short periods of time contributes important natural fertilisation. However, animals kept for too long in one place will compact the soils and disrupt the root structures of the plants that they graze.
Plants, soils and water
Key to the success of a planned grazing approach is increasing the organic matter within the soil for optimum growing efficiency, resilience, recovery time and water maximisation. Foremost, a diverse selection of suitable plant species is essential to ensuring adequate and consistent ground cover. Paired with other complementary plant varieties, the result of this is not just the avoidance of bare soil but also a diverse network of root structures which serve as pathways for water to permeate and be stored within the soil.
If the option is available, it is also helpful to prepare soils by mowing fodder crops to create natural mulch which then decomposes into the soil. As mentioned earlier, the short-term presence of livestock in specific areas and the process of natural and intensive fertilisation is also key to soil health and productivity. Gentle tillage of the soil from hooves – also called the herd effect – is also beneficial. Careful consideration to plant species selection, preparation of these pastures and the implementation of planned grazing regimes works to encourage healthier root systems which also influences the successful cohabitation of plant species in residence as well as their capacity to recover, grow and flourish.
These diverse established root structures underneath the soil, careful attention to avoid over-grazing along with the allowance of sufficient recovery time will contribute to the increase of organic matter and water storage capacity within the soils. Thus, well managed cattle grazing can simultaneously fertilise pastures and promote increased water storage within the soil.
Rotational grazing planning
Optimum cattle stocking rates and regular rotational grazing patterns are key to achieving optimum productivity through encouraging healthy soils and self-regenerating pastures. Four key factors are to be considered when planning a rotational grazing regime – stocking rate (or the total number of animals in one herd), time, stock density (or paddock size) and herd effect, which describes the influence of animal hooves in pushing uneaten plant matter into the soil, serving as mulch.
While factors such as productivity requirements (for example, additional feed required at weaning time or when preparing animals for sale), seasonal variation and other management influences are all to be considered when planning your grazing schedule, the most vital aspect is the recovery period allowed in order for plants to rejuvenate.
Surprisingly, just as overgrazing is the enemy of productivity, over-resting is also detrimental to optimum plant growth. In short, if left too long between visits by grazing animals some plant species – most often weeds – will overpower others and the soils will no longer reflect the positive influence of hoof tillage and manure fertilisation.
Develop a planned grazing schedule
Planning a rotational grazing regime first begins with determining how much feed an animal requires to sustain itself per day. This will change seasonally as the nutritional value of pastures and the calorie requirement of animals changes, however establishing a baseline is essential for developing the structure of a planned grazing regime. From here, the next stage is to establish how many of these ‘animal days’ per acre your land is capable of sustaining and, as a result, how many acres are required per day. Different animal sizes and ages should also be taken into account – for example, a cow and calf will require 1.5 times the amount of feed when compared to a dry cow, while a bull will require twice the amount. For ease of calculation, a dry cow can be considered one animal ‘unit’, with other cattle calculated to reflect their respective animal unit contribution to the herd.
From here, the second calculation of key importance is pasture recovery time. This is influenced by the extent of the grazing as well as seasonal conditions and general pasture health. Grazing height – or extent of grazing – also effects different plant species differently. For example, taller growing varieties will be grazed lower than ground cover or runner plants, which will consequently recover more quickly. Weather conditions also significantly influence growth and thus recovery. In good growing conditions recovery can take as little as little as 30 days, with the alternative – heavily grazed plants and poor growing conditions – being 90 days and beyond.
Grazing periods are therefore linked to recovery periods – in short, lesser grazing times mean lesser recovery times. When it comes to these timings, there are many different schedules that could be implemented. The Savory Institute, led by regenerative farming pioneer Allan Savory, suggests that the average grazing period should be six days across six paddocks, less in rapid growing conditions and more in slower growing conditions. The more paddocks are available, the less days required in one paddock to allow plants to rejuvenate. Importantly, while the recovery period does not decrease, the time between visits does.
Although it may be contrary to instinct, slower moves work to maximise recovery in more challenging conditions – each time a paddock is left a day early, one day less is allowed for the first paddock to recover. There are of course many more variables to consider and therefore for optimum productivity these schedules may need to be adjusted frequently.
For more in depth information – including explanatory diagrams and templates for establishing rotational grazing plans – we recommend the Savory Institute’s resources, the full copies of which are available for purchase here.
While there many are different approaches to rotational grazing schedules as well as significant differences in different parts of Australia (and from property to property), the information in this article serves as a starting point for the development of planned grazing regimes and – at the very least – schedules for experimentation and trial.