Benefits of rotational grazing

Pastures represent an important land resource, but many pastures are overgrazed resulting in uneven forage stands, low yields, higher weed pressure, and erosion issues due to bare ground. Continuous grazing doesn’t allow forage time to rest and recover and high-quality species die out from selective overgrazing.  Rotational grazing occurs when a pasture is divided up into segments and only a portion of the pasture is grazed at one time.  Cattle are rotated between the paddocks giving forage time to regrow and build deeper root systems.

Rotational grazing intensity varies from low intensity (moved every 1-2 weeks) to management intensive grazing where the cattle are moved daily or multiple times a day. By restricting the cattle to specific paddocks, they are less likely to selectively graze and will better utilize the available forage. This tends to help reduce weed pressure as well. Weeds tend to thrive in overgrazed pastures because there is less competition and weeds are better adapted to growing in degraded conditions. Rotational grazing will likely still need to be paired with mechanical and/or chemical weed control in order to control weeds, especially when transitioning from a continuous grazing system to rotational grazing.

Many people are hesitant to try rotational grazing because of the time they assume it will take to move livestock. However, if a paddock system is well designed, it may only take 15 minutes to move cattle between paddocks.  In contrast, it can take 20 minutes to an hour to feed hay and silage in a confinement system. Also, factor in the time and cost of making hay or hauling manure. By allowing the cattle to harvest the forage for themselves and spread manure, there is significant time and cost savings.

There are obvious costs of setting up a rotational grazing system, however those start-up costs are less than setting up confinement systems. Generally the biggest costs associated with setting up rotational grazing are fencing and watering systems. There is cost-share available through the Federal EQIP program at the local NRCS office for many of these practices.

Well-managed pasture systems have several environmental advantages over row-crop production, especially on many of the steep soils in Allamakee County and throughout northeast Iowa. Pastures have much lower erosion rates, minimal pesticide and fertilizer requirements, and decreased risk of manure runoff. With the low corn and soybean prices, now may be a good time to utilize available cost-share and convert some cropland to pasture, especially if the land borders an existing pasture which would increase the number of available paddocks for a rotational system.

If you have any interest in looking into rotational grazing and/or cropland conversion to pasture, stop by the Waukon NRCS office at 635 9th St NW in Waukon or call 563-568-2246 ext. 3.