Successful Grazing Systems Start with Solid Goals

Victoria Mundy, Extension Educator

Design of Grazing Systems: Part I

Productive, efficient grazing systems can be a truly enjoyable part of farming. They are challenging to design, though, and sometimes knowing where to start is the hardest part. There are at least four parts to a successful system: animals, plants, soils, and you.

Start with yourself, your family, and measurable goals. "We want enough extra income to put Mary through UNL with no student loans, and we only want to spend two person-hours a day working on the grazing system after it is set up." "I want to have blowout penstemon on that north hilltop, and 30 native grass species on the rest of the range."

These goals tell you exactly how many dollars your grazing system needs to make or what specific management each paddock will need. Don't set going-nowhere goals, like "more income" or "less time working." Think about your personal values and consider how the grazing system can help you to obtain your specific quality-of-life goals. This step is hard, but it's more than worth the effort.

Inventory your available resources: existing facilities, soils, forages, labor, capital, and whatever else you have. The soggy meadow you can never get hay from could provide summer grazing so the hilltop can be left to let that penstemon flower. If Mary wants to be a vet, she might care for the animals now; if she wants to go into business, she could keep the books. The best thing about having some resources but not others is the mental stimulation, after all - everything does fit somewhere.

Design of Grazing Systems: Part 2

The other three parts of a grazing system - plants, animals, and soils - are simpler to deal with. The idea with controlled grazing systems is to use forages to harvest sunlight, make animals harvest their own feed and re-distribute nutrients to the soils, and use soils to grow forages. The better the cycle works, the more productive the system will be.

Proper paddock layout and design can help the cycle turn. A good paddock design will make the grazing environment within each paddock as uniform as possible. Each area can be managed according to its needs, so forage growth, grazing, and nutrient distribution will be adequate in every part of each paddock.

The following tips for paddock layout are only guidelines. The specifics of your design need to fit your situation. Particularly, people in dry range will have other priorities and will make different decisions, especially concerning water, than people who have reliable rainfall. Not every idea can or should be applied to every paddock.

Plan your ideal system on paper, to use as a blueprint as you build. The plan can be changed as new thoughts come along - but if you know how the finished system should look, you'll have to tear out fewer fences. Ask lots of people for ideas, especially anyone who will have to use the system. Most graziers love to talk about design; call NSAS for names.

Topography and Soils

Fence along landscape lines. Try to fence on the contour and along ridgetops. Erosion will be reduced because animals will walk on the contour instead of trailing up and down the hill. Fence maintenance will be easier, too. Try to plan lanes and alleyways along high contours, so they will stay drier and be less prone to erosion.

Separate south- and north-facing slopes. Ridgetop fences accomplish this. Forage growth, even of the same species, is often very different on one side of a hill than on the other: south-facing slopes are warmer and drier than north-facing ones. Separating the slopes will allow you to manage the forage on each side of the hill according to its growth. Animals will tend to favor one slope over the other; separating the slopes will make them graze and distribute manure more evenly.

Separate landforms. Cattle generally prefer to graze flat spots rather than hillsides; sheep prefer hills. Separating slopes from hillcrests and valleys will keep animals from camping in a hollow or overgrazing their favorite spot.

Separate major soil types if possible. Separating landforms and slopes will help with this, as soils differ across topography. Within a landform, try to separate wet from dry spots, or very productive sites from less productive ones. Forages may have different growth patterns across soil types; separating them will make site-specific management easier and grazing more even.

Water and Shade

Keep animals within 800 feet of water if possible. Providing water in every paddock is a good long-term goal. Meanwhile, consider all options for water delivery, including portable systems or a nurse tank. Grazing and nutrient distribution will be more even if no area of the paddock is more than 900 feet from water. Animals will drink 15% more if the water is within 800 feet; then they eat more and produce better. Make sure the water is clean, especially for young or very high-producing animals. In the end, water development may well cost nearly as much as fencing.

Separate shady areas - maybe. Shade can provide some comfort for animals, which may increase production. If shade is available, expect the animals to spend time there, to graze close to the shade, and to deposit most manure in the shady spot after grazing the sunny area. Do keep shade and water far apart. If the uneven grazing and manure distribution associated with shade is unacceptable, fence the shade off.

Paddock Shape and Size

Make paddocks as near to square as possible. Paddocks that are closer to square will have more even grazing distribution because the forage will be more equi-distant to water. The longer the grazing period, the more important shape becomes for even grazing. Square paddocks require less fencing, and straight fencelines are easier to install and maintain. Square paddocks are not suitable for hilly or non-uniform land; topography is more important.

Paddocks should be of similar productive capacity. The idea is to size paddocks so that animals spend a similar amount of time in each. A paddock on very productive land can be smaller than one on a droughty, infertile site. Fencing according to topography, landform, and soils will help, as will separating areas with different forage species.

The topics covered in this article are just the start. Watch for more. If there's something you want to read about, contact us at NSAS.

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