How to Avoid Costly Mistakes in Pasture Management

By Sarah Flack, Organic Consultant; Dr. Cindy Daley, California State University Chico; and
Kathy Soder, USDA’s Agricultural Research Station in Pennsylvania

Added September 10, 2012. Well-managed pasture-based grazing systems are key to economic sustainability in the organic dairy industry. However, while well-managed pasture is an asset to a dairy farm, poorly managed pasture can create serious problems, including reduced milk production and poor animal performance. Let’s step back from the day-to-day routine for just a moment and look at some of the areas that have been identified as the most common costly mistakes made by dairy graziers.

Badly Designed Grazing System and Infrastructure: Producers often “inherit” a grazing system that may be outdated, or designed for a different herd size and management system. Often this type of infrastructure does not meet the farm’s grazing management goals and needs to be updated. Mistakes often made in the design aspects include:

  • Lane construction & location preventing easy cattle flow
  • Poor proximity to water and water access
  • Fences which are overbuilt ($$) or under-built (no control)
  • Poorly grounded electric fence systems (no control)
  • Incorrectly sized paddocks
  • Too few acres of pasture, which can lead to overgrazing and low dry matter intake [DMI]
  • Too many acres, particularly during the times of rapid forage growth when pastures become over mature and less digestible
  • Dairy pastures on poor quality land instead of on high quality crop land.

Failure to develop an effective grazing design ends up costing time and labor, and leaves a lot of lost profit potential in the paddock. There are new technologies and grazing system resources to improve grazing systems including:

  • Mapping & satellite imagery using freeware such as Google Earth, which can provide the bird’s eye view of their farm as well as linear measurements for effective planning and design.
  • Cost effective electric fence technology, lane building techniques and portable water troughs
  • NRCS programs to assist with design, management and cost of improvements.

Poor Grazing Management Techniques: Poor grazing management can happen even in a well-designed system, so a good understanding of how pasture plants grow and how they respond to different types of grazing management is important. Poor grazing management will result in a whole list of pasture problems including:

  • Overgrazing damage to pastures
  • Increasing numbers of weeds
  • Soil erosion
  • Less productive pasture plants, uneven growth, low density pasture
  • Lower quality pasture
  • Internal parasite problems.

Continuous grazing or set stock grazing is the most common grazing system in the United States. Unfortunately, it most often results in overgrazing damage and an increase of less-desirable plant species. When cows graze without restriction, they eat the most palatable forage first, leaving the less desirable/less palatable plants behind to go to seed and proliferate.

Managed Intensive Grazing, or MIG, is a style of grazing where a paddock is grazed by a large group of animal and then rested for 21 -30 days before it is grazed again. Rest periods allow plants to recover before the next grazing cycle. Likewise, the roots are allowed to reestablish. A well-designed MIG system can significantly increase forage production and quality and improve weed management as cows are encouraged to eat a diversified diet because of competition with other cows and the limited amount of forage made available at a time.
Overgrazing Damage: Overgrazing damage happens by returning livestock to a pasture where the plants have not yet had time to fully regrow, OR by keeping livestock in a paddock for too long. Overgrazing can rob pastures of future production and when it is repeated, results in desirable forages dying, and being replaced by undesirable weeds.

Overgrazing most often results from a few common mistakes including:

  • Removing interior fences in the fall and letting cows “clean up” pastures
  • Having a “rotational” system of 6 or 7 paddocks, with each grazed for 1-2 days
  • Leaving animals in the same pasture for more than 3 days
  • Returning animals to the pasture before all of the plants have regrown
  • Not adding additional acres into the grazing rotation when plant growth rates slow
  • Having too many ‘leader-follower’ groups without leaving sufficient plant residue.

Pasture Nutrition Problems: The two most common nutritional pitfalls during the grazing season are feeding too much protein, and inadequate DMI due to poor pasture quality.