Rotational grazing is something we have been working with since the early 1990’s, when Dad purchased the farm next door. The new land had not been worked for a number of years, and everything on it was in a state of disrepair. The old barn was buried, the house cleaned up and refurbished, and new fences went up so that our Fleckvieh cattle could enjoy the extra space. We spent a lot of time together that summer – fencing and, in his words, ‘putting the land to work’.
Thanks to 40 acres of bush at Dora Lee, fencing started the hard way – we cut all of our cedar posts directly from the bush. Most trees had two or three 8ft posts in them, and Dad was always careful to only selectively cut the posts we needed from a number of different areas in order to keep the forest viable for future uses. We would log for a while, and then move the pile of fresh cut posts to the house, where an ‘after supper’ job for us kids would be stripping the bark from the green posts, getting them ready to be ‘planted’. We then moved on to the actual fencing – the perimeter was completed with 4 strand high-tensile electric wire (with cedar posts every 30 ft), while the cross fencing was single strand (and thankfully just plastic posts). Although it has been 20 years, the original electric fencing has remained in place, and dad continues to add additional cross-fences to improve the rotational grazing patterns. This summer alone, an additional 2 miles of interior fences were added.
Partly because of this background, one of our summer projects here at Applecross was to complete the first phase of our rotational grazing program. As I have previously discussed, our home quarter is solely a grass quarter, with three separate walking groups (bred heifers, cows w heifer calves, cows w bull calves). All three groups obviously need to have access to a clean water source, preferably in the yard. While well-water is more expensive than a dug-out or natural water source, I think the cattle just do better with quality water. We also like the fact that our groups then have to come up to the yard to drink. It gets them in a routine of coming up to buildings, and in turn locking them in for treatment, processing or sorting becomes very straightforward. It might mean a little extra fence to add alleys to all the rotations, but the management benefits more than offset the additional cost and time to put them up.
So during my August holidays, we finally finished phase one of our rotational grazing plan. Each of the three groups now have 3 paddocks they can rotate through, and an alley to get to the yard for water. The cows are rotated approximately every 10 days, giving each pasture a 20 day break. We also have 2 smaller ‘overflow’ fields which are not part of the rotation, but can be utilized should any of the groups get ahead of the re-growth. It is always great to have a little flexibility.
Our cross-fencing is simply single strand hot wire, and it does appear to be something that the cows respect. We have quiet cows, and that certainly helps with the hot wire (as they usually walk not run), but obviously if a cow feels cornered or threatened, they will still go through or over the fence. We are predominantly utilizing fiberglass ‘pigtail posts’ that can be easily removed/dropped if you need to drive over the fence with a tractor (or when spreading manure for that matter). We like that the ‘pigtails’ don’t have parts to break off like other posts, but they are a little tall at spring turn out, as the younger calves can still walk under them. We manage this by angling the posts, which drops the wire height slightly. Not only does this keep the calves in, but it also makes it a little easier for us to step over when walking between groups.
Phase 1 is now complete, so we will move on to phase 2 over the next few years. Our final goal is to have 6 paddocks for each group, allowing a 5 day rotation and 25 day rest – we think this will be the optimal balance between maximizing grass while keeping active management to a moderate level. While we are out to ‘visit’ our cows pretty much every day in the summer, moving them every 5 days feels like it will be the right amount that will allow the cattle to keep their routines, while keeping the grass re-growth high.
It may be early yet to see how successful our new fences have been in improving yield, however we have already been able to see visible improvement in the first fields that were cross fenced in 2010 and 2011. While the cows still have their favorite spots in each paddock, re-growth seems to be broader spread and more even. Different species seem to be thriving – as an early graze of quick growing spring grass appears to allow for clover and alfalfa to thrive more through the middle of the season. We look forward to seeing how the grass continues to evolve over the upcoming years.
Our goal is to be able to increase the yield of our pastures by upwards of 20%. Whether we utilize this gain by being able to graze longer into winter, or by pasturing more cattle, a 20% grass gain for a couple of hundred dollars of wire and posts seems like a pretty good investment.
We have been blessed this summer by lots of moisture through June and July, followed by plenty of heat this summer. The grass (as you can see in the picture), has been plentiful, and as a result, it hasn’t been nearly as stressed as a ‘normal’ year would be. Considering the wide-spread drought conditions in the US and Eastern Canada, we are very, very fortunate. With the weather and grass that we have, our efforts to improve our rotational grazing may not seem immediately beneficial, but over the longer term, less stress on each of the pastures should only be a good thing; regardless of the weather.