Chris D. Teutsch, UK Grain and Forage Center of Excellence

“Failing to plan is planning to fail”, Alan Lakein

Sometimes in life we find ourselves barreling forward without much of a plan. This often gives us a false sense of making progressing. In reality, it is very difficult to get somewhere if you don’t know where you are going. Grazing systems are no different, without clear objectives, a knowledge of your resources, and a plan on how to use those resources to achieve those objectives, it is very difficult to make meaningful progress. The objective of this article is to help you start the process of planning and implementing an improved grazing system.

Setting Goals

When planning a grazing system, the first question that you need to answer is “What do I want to accomplish?” There are really no wrong or right answers. You have to decide what you want out of an improved grazing system. While we tend to focus on production/economic related goals, I think it is important to consider lifestyle goals also. Once you decide on the goals that are important to you, it is crucial to write them down. Once you have this statement, DO NOT file it away, but rather print it out and put it where you will see it every day.

Example of a goal statement:

“We want to implement a rotational stocking system that will allow us to feed less hay, maintain good body condition in our cattle herd, protect our soil and water resources, and allow us time to attend our children’s extracurricular activities.”

It is important to remember that goals are NOT static and will tend to change over time. So, it is important to periodically review both short-term and long-term goals and make sure that they are still applicable for your current situation.

Evaluating Resources

Once you understand where you want to go, you then need to figure out how to get there. This process starts by evaluating the resources that you have to work with. This may include your soils, soil fertility, forage base, fencing, water sources and locations, cattle genetics, available labor, and so on. By inventorying your resources, you can begin to understand your limitations and opportunities. For example, investing in improved animal genetics would be meaningless if you don’t have the forage resources that would allow those genetics to be expressed. The following list is some of the resources that are especially important in grazing systems:

Soils and soil fertility. Not all soils are created equal. Deep, well drained, fertile soils have a much higher yield potential than shallow soils with a high percentage of rock fragments. It is important to remember that forage production even on very good soils can be severely reduced by low soil fertility. The best way to determine soil fertility levels is to get a soil test. In general, we want to maintain soil pH between 6.2 and 6.4 and phosphorus and potassium levels in the medium+ to high range.

Forage base. The type of forage species that you have on your farm can impact both forage productivity and availability during the summer and winter months. For example, a forage system based solely on cool-season grasses and legumes will have great production during the spring and fall, but limited growth during the summer. In this case, adding a warm-season grass could greatly improve summer grazing capacity.

Water resources. Access to water is often a major factor restricting the use of rotational grazing. Understanding what your existing water resources are and how they can be developed to support improved grazing management is crucial.

Fencing resources. Fence in a rotational grazing system is simply a tool to manage grazing. Most farms will have some type of an established perimeter fence. One of the most cost-effective fencing practices is to install a single electrified wire 30 inches above the ground on the inside of the perimeter fence. This will allow you to subdivide large pastures into smaller ones using temporary fence posts and polywire. Step in posts and polywire are powerful tools for improving grazing management.

Forage productivity. Forage productivity is sum of your soils, soil fertility, forage species, and grazing management plus rainfall. It is important to realize that as management increases in your grazing system, so will productivity. Poorly managed pasture may only yield 1-2 ton DM/A/year, while those same pastures under improved management could yield 4 or more ton DM/A/year. So, when you are planning a grazing system, plan for the both the present and the future productivity.

Calculate Forage Balance

To determine your forage balance, you will need to know your forage requirements and how much your pastures are capable for producing. To determine your forage requirements, you will need do a little simple math. For these calculations we need to know the weight and number of animals that we are feeding and their expected dry matter intake as a percent of body weight. For example, you have 100 brood cows that weigh 1200 lb/cow and four bulls that weigh 1500 lb/bull. All are eating on average 2.5% of their body weight each day. So, to determine their annual dry matter requirements you can use the following formula:

DM Required Annually = Number of Cows x Average Weight per Cow in pounds x Dry Matter Intake as % of Body Weight x 365 days

The next step is to estimate your forage supply. To do this you will need to estimate your pasture productivity and seasonal utilization of the forage. In most cases seasonal utilization rates range from 40 to 70% and increase as length of the grazing period decreases. Using the following formula we can calculate the amount of forage available to graze.

Available Forage = (Pasture Productivity in lb DM/A x Utilization Rate/100) x Acres of Pastures

Our forage balance is calculated by subtracting the available DM from the required DM. if this number is negative, then we have more livestock than our pastures are capable of supporting without purchasing additional hay or supplements. If the number is positive, we may be understocked. The beauty of improved grazing systems is that they will tend to increase pasture productivity over time.

What we have not yet taken into account is the forage distribution. In the case of cool-season pastures, more forage is produced in the spring when we are unable to utilize it and less in the summer when really need it. Therefore, during the summer months our forage deficit may be even larger, if we do not have warm-season grasses in our system.

Establishing a Stocking Rate

Stocking rates that are set too low tend to have the highest production per animal, but lowest production per acre. These stocking rates tend to waste pasture resources due to lower utilization rates and decrease overall profitability. Stocking rates that are set too high tend to have low individual animal performance and low output per acre. These stocking rates tend to be unprofitable because neither the pasture nor the animals are productive. The goal in setting sustainable stocking rates is to find the “sweet spot” where animal performance is good and output per acre is optimized. In Kentucky and other transition zone states, feeding no hay is not normally the most profitable model. Economists have found that around 60 days of hay feeding usually results in the greatest net return. However, it is important to note that the economics of hay feeding and grazing are NOT static, but rather change as the price of hay and grazing change.

Stocking Rate Example:

100-1200 lb cows
Pastures yield 6,000 lb DM/A/year
Seasonal utilization rate is 60%
Hay Feeding period is 60 days
Grazing period is 305 days

Forage Requirements from Pasture = ((100 cows x 1200 lb/cow x 2.5%/100) x 305 days of grazing = 915,000 lb DM/year

Pasture Required in acres = 915,000 lb / (6,000 lb DM/A x 60% utilization rate/100) = 254 A of pasture or 2.54 acres/cow

In my experience, a stocking rate of 2.54 acres/cow-calf is about right if you want to have an extended grazing season. If you are on good soils with good fertility and high level of grazing management, then 2 acres/cow-calf may be sustainable. If your soils are not great but have ok fertility, and you are managing grazing but not intensively, then 3 acres/cow is about right. As you creep below 2 acres/cow-calf, your hay feeding period will tend to increase and in most cost cases longer hay feeding periods are negatively related to profitability.

Final Thoughts on the Real World

We plan for average years and we don’t often have an average year. When I was at Virginia Tech, our Ag Economist use to say that an average is like having one foot in a bucket of ice cold water and the other in a bucket of scolding hot water, on average you are comfortable, but it hurts like hell! One of the most important things to build into a grazing system is the flexibility to respond to changes. It could be a drought or a flood or changes in the market. The point is that having the ability to respond to those changes in a timely fashion can often be the difference between making a profit or not!

Need help planning a grazing system?

The best way to get started with a planned grazing system is by attending the “Kentucky Beginning Grazing School”. This intensive two-day school provides a wealth of information about setting up and managing planned grazing systems. It is held in western Kentucky in the spring and the eastern Kentucky in the fall. The most important of this school is not necessarily the information, but rather the contacts that you will make with forage, livestock, and conservation professionals from across the Commonwealth. These will be your go to people when you have questio