Implementing High-Density Grazing

Doing more with less is nothing new for agricultural producers. As urban sprawl overtakes farmland, producers need to preserve existing grasslands for long-term production and food security.

For more than 20 years, Noble Research Institute’s Director of Public Relations Hugh Aljoe has advocated for regenerative practices that care for the land, grass and livestock together. One hallmark of this philosophy is high-density grazing, also known as mob grazing.

“High-density grazing is the practice of intentionally grazing livestock in higher concentrations than normal to manage soil, forages and livestock production of a specific area,” he explained.

It exists in stark contrast with rotational grazing, where producers move cattle through only a few pastures. In a high-density grazing system, producers frequently move cattle among a minimum of eight pastures. Some ranches find themselves applying the strategy in upward of 30 pastures. Aljoe said he considers that ultra-high-density grazing.

 

High-density grazing improves efficiency

Aljoe said many people interested in mob grazing are trying to achieve a higher stocking rate. However, he cautioned producers that this goal is not instantly attainable.

“The best way to begin to make land improvements is to stock, adjust your stocking rate down and get your management in order first,” he described. “It is not unusual for us to see people that move, in two or three years, back to the same stocking rate, but now they’ve got a program where you’re actually beginning to build the production naturally.”

His team aims to manage their high-density grazing system so cattle can graze year-round. This lofty goal takes years to achieve, but Aljoe said there are practical ways to check progress over time.

“Track your grazing days, your animal unit days and the recovery in between,” he said. “You want to be able to go out there and be sure that over time these pastures, as a rule, are trending upward.”

When cattle graze for a shorter duration in a smaller space, the competition for desirable grass teaches them to graze more effectively. Since the cattle won’t graze any one area completely before moving, Aljoe said the more productive plants get healthier and begin to dominate the landscape — leading to a greater carrying capacity over time.

Additionally, he recommends noting the depth of the dark topsoil. That highly organic layer should get deeper with each passing year.

 

From the soil up

Aljoe said the effectiveness of high-density grazing begins with what is below the surface. While monocultures are popular in production agriculture today, he argued they may not be the best for long-term soil sustainability.

“If you think about nature, there’s nothing that’s a monoculture,” he said. “Because of our desire to try to manage the land, we like to put something there that we can really have control over.”

This often leads producers to amend the soil and inadvertently destroy some of the existing biology. He said the more diverse the soil biology, the better quality the forages will be. In other words, by maintaining adequate ground cover and allowing organic material back into the soil, increased soil health and water retention will ultimately ensure more nutrient-dense forage.

That is where high-density grazing comes into play. If mob grazing is done properly by adapting to varying scenarios, Aljoe said a producer can expect to grow diverse grasses in a hurry during the wet season. As conditions become dry, he said producers should be more intentional to keep from overgrazing and protect the soil.

Grazing plans aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution, so taking the time to identify the best grazing practices for each operation is critical. Considering native grasses and rainfall is a big part of that.

“Ultimately, we want a functional ecosystem where water goes into the soil rapidly, not run off,” he said. “We want to make sure we have, to the extent we can, as much diversity as we can within our ecosystem that we’re managing.”

Herd management considerations

If a producer already checks their cattle a couple of times per week, implementing high-density grazing may not require much additional labor.

“It is more about timeliness, not the amount of time,” he said.

In this system, cattle herds are consolidated. They learn how to move through the pastures easily after a few times training them. Aljoe said it doesn’t necessarily require more labor, but it does require more planning and timely management to move cattle before the forage becomes too short.

A producer can access an abundance of resources online (like Greg Judy Regenerative Rancher) and in print (like “Management-Intensive Grazing” by Jim Gerrish) to help determine the appropriate pasture size for this grazing system. The duration in each pasture depends on how quickly the cattle graze the area and requires an adaptive approach.

“We have got to be thinking about how we are going to apply our management relative to the situation we have to work with and realize stock density should be adaptive,” he said. “It should not be prescriptive.”

Large or small, Aljoe advised producers to start with a “safe-to-learn” area. This allows producers to get a feel for what this new grazing strategy may look like and make mistakes on a small piece before expanding to the entire acreage.

“Water is the most limiting factor on most properties,” he pointed out. “If you can strategically locate your water around your pastures … that’ll return your investment the quickest.”

Aljoe said cattle will only walk about a half mile from water to graze and that can be used as an advantage in high-density grazing. By controlling where the water source is, you can force animals to different areas of the pasture and increase productivity in turn.

 

Rest and regrow

Once the infrastructure and carrying capacity are in place and the soil biology is being considered, Aljoe said to begin working through management of the rest period. A general rule is to only allow cattle to graze 30% to 40% of a plant before moving them to maximize regrowth.

“It’s sort of like mowing your yard,” he explained. “If you go out there and mow the grass at two inches (five centimeters), you may not have to be out there next week. But if you mowed at four inches (10 centimeters), you probably need to mow it again the next weekend.”

In short, the more residual left behind and the longer rest between grazing events, the more rapidly the pasture will recover during the growing season.

The name of the game is using high-density grazing strategies to foster the nutrient cycling that leads to healthier grass and cattle.

“What we’ve got to do is follow the same processes,” Aljoe concluded. “Top graze, move on, top graze, move on, top graze, and allow for the recovery because what they don’t graze gets laid down and becomes part of the organic matter, covers the surface, and adds to the retention of water.”

 

An alternative option

While grazing is ideal, there are certain situations producers may find it impossible. For example, areas with drought, without access to water or without fencing are not good candidates for high-density grazing. Fields previously seeded as monocultures aren’t a match for it either.

While those areas can slowly be converted back into native pasture, Aljoe said there is an option in the meantime. Growing hay or making haylage allows producers the opportunity to have reserves to deliver high-quality nutrition to their herd during winter or other unexpected weather events.

By using the appropriate cutting height, producers can encourage regrowth on the forage stand to maximize its overall contribution to the herd. Fortunately, there are balers on the market to fit a variety of situations. Being strategic about where hay is delivered also has merit.

“Take that hay and put it on those sites that really need improved organic matter,” Aljoe said. “Get that material they don’t use trampled down to the soil and begin to jumpstart your nutrient cycling.”

Over time, those areas will grow higher-quality forage because the organic matter is returning to the soil.

To find the best equipment to achieve your herd management goals, contact your local Vermeer dealer today.

 

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