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Dave Forgey
Dave Forgey
[Photo by T.L. Gettings]
Grazing Basics
Don't forget the fundamentals when you develop your pasture system.

By Dave Forgey, Logansport, Ind., forgraze@carlnet.org

Whether you're an experienced grazier or just getting started, you need to remember the fundamentals of grazing.

Here are some things that everyone who grazes their livestock should keep in mind:

Graze pastures at peak quality. Most forages should be grazed when they are 6 to 12 inches tall. The goal is to have some forage at that stage every day of the grazing season. Learning how to have forages at the 6- to 12-inch height each day of the grazing season is the challenge.

Pasture forage
Well-managed pastures offer
stock high-quality 6- to 12-inch
tall forage every day of the
grazing season.
[Full screen view, 285K]
[Photo by T.L. Gettings]
If you graze limited acres, you must add additional forage to supplement the animals' needs when forages aren't growing fast enough. If you overgraze a limited number of acres you will soon weaken the best plants, and less desirable species will take over. If you want to get all your forage needs from pasture, you will sometimes have more forage than you can graze, especially in spring. You must harvest the excess forage so that it will regrow at the proper time for regrazing.

There are several days of variation in when a plant can be grazed, that's why you can graze at 6 to 12 inches. You must remember though that there is only about half as much feed in a paddock at 6 inches as there is at 12 inches. At 12 inches there can be more pasture trampled and wasted if not properly managed. I prefer to graze when forages are 6 to 8 inches tall.

Temporary fencing
Forgey moves fence as
often as every 4 hours.
[Full screen view, 230K]
[Photo by T.L. Gettings]
Rotate often. With dairy cows I have found that the more consistent the forage is, the more consistent their production is. That is why we give cows new fresh forage every 12 hours. In fact, we usually break 12 hour paddocks into three parts -- giving the cows a fresh break every 4 hours or so -- for better utilization and less waste.

As long as soil conditions permit, cows can cross already-grazed forage to get to fresh feed with little damage. After three days, forage starts to regrow, and the cattle should not be allowed to regraze the area.

I have found that if milkers top-graze an 8-inch pasture down to about 5 inches, then heifers and dry cows can get adequate nutrition by grazing after the cows and taking the next two inches, leaving a 3- to 4-inch stubble for faster regrowth. I have also found that if you leave some leaf area, the plant recovers quickly without depleting root reserves.

Another important aspect of keeping the forages no more than about at the 6 to 8 inches tall is that sunlight can get to the soil surface, and help new plants that would otherwise be shaded out to get established. This helps to build a stronger sod base, and helps reduce mud problems when it's wet.

One very important consideration is cows trampling forage during wet conditions. This caused me a lot of concern when I began grazing. I have found that it is important to keep cows full when it is wet. A full cow will lay down and chew her cud, while a hungry cow will pace the fence looking for more feed, damaging the area where she walks. As the sod base thickens through grazing, this becomes less of a problem. But you must never forget the pasture or the cows when it is wet. There are times when heavy pugging (hoof damage) can be a benefit, especially in heavy fescue sods where more clovers are needed to improve palatability. Once pastures are pugged, a young clover plant has a place to become established.

Water trough
Forgey uses portable
tanks to provide water
in each paddock
[Full screen view, 300K]
[Photo by T.L. Gettings]
Get water to the cows. One of the most important considerations in planning your grazing system is the layout of your paddocks and water system. Although water in the paddock is not essential for beef cattle and dairy heifers, I believe it is necessary for the milking herd. Making an initial investment in a water system can save a considerable expense for all-weather lanes to get the livestock back to centrally located water. Since the milking herd must go to the barn twice a day for milking, lanes will be required, but they will last longer if cows don't go several times a day for water.

Plan your paddocks and lanes. Paddocks should be sized for no more than three days or grazing, including follow-up by dry cows and heifers. Orient the gates to the paddocks so that the cows are on a direct route to the barn. Do not have cows exit a paddock and move along the paddock fence to the barn. The first cows will exit and the rest will follow them inside the fence and not go to the gate. My paddocks range in size from 3 to 5 acres and are used for 12 hours by the 150-cow milking herd. Paddocks should have similar soil types and terrain in them so that plant species will be the same. If soils or terrain change, run the fence near the change and form another paddock.

All-weatherlanes provide
access to a third of Forgey's
paddocks even in wet weather.
[Full screen view, 294K]
[Photo by T.L. Gettings]
Our lanes are about 10 feet wide and covered with #4 stone about 2 inches deep topped with enough ag lime so that the stones' sharp edges won't hurt the cows' feet. We have this starting at the barn and going to about a third of our paddocks so that we can use these paddocks during wet weather. The balance are dirt lanes and are adequate when the weather is drier. We do not drive farm machinery down the lanes. We have separate accesses through the paddocks if we need to get equipment there to harvest forage.

Fence right. If livestock are to be restrained with a single-wire electric fence, it is necessary that they be properly trained before releasing them for the first time. A good hot wire placed several feet inside a barrier fence will adequately train the animals in a few days. Remember the hot wire is a psychological barrier and not a physical barrier, so the animals must know it is hot.

Wires can be high-tensile galvanized or aluminum as well as polywire. When you begin your system it might be feasible to have a temporary system. However, don't let yourself become bogged down with fence-building and repair. If you are going to make grazing work long term, a permanent fencing system is essential. This can be a very inexpensive system consisting of one high-tensile wire with posts spaced up to 100 feet apart. There should be cut-out switches placed in strategic locations so that you needn't return to the fence charger if you have a minor repair or want to install a break wire. Electric fencers must be adequately grounded. Three 10-foot ground rods driven into moist soil are essential to maintain a well-grounded system. Failure to do this can shorten the life of the fencer as well as provide less charge to the fence causing problems with cattle escaping. (See 17 Mistakes To Avoid With Electric Fencing.)

I believe that break-wires are an important aspect of any good grazing system. I install break-wires in most paddocks to reduce the area the animals have when they enter a paddock. This causes them to graze the entire plant and not just the top leaves. Since they eat the entire plant there should be less chance of bloat from legumes and less trampling of forages because they are restrained in a smaller area.

I generally place two break-wires in a 12-hour paddock, and remove them as the cows need more feed. This causes very even grazing of a paddock, then heifers can follow-up without concern of bloat. Cut-out switches become essential for us, as many paddocks are more than a half-mile from the fence charger. I also installed underground hot wires across my gateways. This keeps mainline fences hot when gates are open and allows me to insulate gates so they are not hot when they are open. This avoids shorting out the fencer.

When installing our water system, we placed the line along the laneways so that paddocks could be supplied on either side of the lane by each connection. In fact, we usually placed risers where four paddocks meet at the lane so that a coupling can supply four paddocks with a garden hose.

My lines were buried with a telephone cable plow, but many systems are laid out on the soil surface, or in a furrow made with a single-bottom plow and then covered after the pipe is in place. I used 1-inch pipe, started at the well and went to all paddocks in a loop configuration, returning to the well. This is like having two 1-inch lines going to each coupling and increases the volume of water, plus gives us a way to drain the water lines during freezing weather.

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