Intensive grazing paddock systems have rapidly grown in popularity over the last 15 years. That’s when University of Missouri research professor emeritus Dr. Fred Martz starting doing research on them. “I see, hear and read about various producers using that,” Martz told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor. “We can increase our carrying capacity, our stocking rate, by 30-50 percent, and the cost of doing that isn’t really great because modern fencing and water systems don’t cost that much to put in.” Most producers who try it, he added, don’t go back to conventional grazing.
You can put John Spain in that camp. The Hindville, Ark., rancher was already under a traditional rotation system when he made the switch in 1989. “I wasn’t getting enough production,” he told OFN. “I had seen this system in operation in New Zealand, and had been reading about it in various magazines, and decided to try it.” Spain divided 25 acres into five paddocks, using only equipment he could put to use elsewhere on the farm if it didn’t work out. It did, and today his entire 219 acres of forage is divided into 32 paddocks for 65 cow/calf pairs.
Spain said he had nowhere to turn for advice at the time, but management of the paddocks is a simple matter of common sense. “I was devoted to grazing and I had a bit of knowledge of plant growth,” he said. “I’d leave them on there until my senses told me that it was time for them to move because of the plant height, enough leaf area left to collect sunlight to get it to come back and grow; pretty soon the cows would tell me when it was time to move.” How? “The first two days I’d put them in those paddocks, the cows would pay me no mind when I’d go in there,” Spain said. “But then the third day, early in the day they’d start raising their heads and looking at me, and at the end of the third day they’d start bawling, letting me know that it’s time to go somewhere else.”
Spain said rather than taking more effort than his previous rotational system, it took less. Two of his paddocks are situated on a river and in a hilly area and could not be made permanent, but the rest is permanently established. “All I have to do is open a gate and move cattle,” he said.
The system also works with a broad selection of forages, according to Martz. Warm-season grasses like crabgrass, bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass are appropriate, as are cool-season grasses like bluegrass, tall fescue, orchardgrass and bromegrass. And the system is conducive to the 30-40 percent legumes that Martz believes makes for a good pasture mix. “One of the big secrets of management intensive grazing is the pastures get rested because we graze them two or three days and then we move on to another paddock. And so, that rest allows the legumes especially to regenerate and remain strong in the pasture,” he said.
The three day limit for keeping cows on a paddock isn’t cut and dried, he said – “We can stay four and five” – but the key is to get them off before regeneration begins. “If we get too long, the cattle – and sheep and goats – start to graze the new shoots coming up on the recently-grazed plants,” Martz said. “That is bad for the plant; it keeps taking the energy, and the roots and top get out of balance.” In fact, he said dairy farmers who use management intensive grazing move their cows every 12 hours, because of the importance of maintaining milk quality.
The systems also require fencing – either a permanent electric fence, with a single strand of high tensile wire to save money, or temporary fences using polywire and step-in posts – and water. “A permanent water line has to be laid below the ground 30” or more, depending on what part of the state and country we’re in,” Martz said, “but we can also lay water line on top of the ground if we have warmer winters.”
Spain added, in his view, anybody could really do it. He said,“We have a lot of people who come to our grazing schools that will come once, go home and say, ‘That sounds good, but I’m really not into it.’ But we have a lot of people that will come to a grazing school, and then take that knowledge back home and put it to work. We’ve have a lot of people that have developed as profitable and nice of pastures as I have, and I’ve been at it a long time.”


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