With a mob of cows, a paddock system, high-tensile wire, and electric fencing, you can cut hay expenses, improve soil and pasture health, and maximize herd performance.
At Green Pastures Farm, we’ve practiced Management-intensive Grazing — also called high-density, or “mob” grazing — for almost a decade, as a part of our holistic grazing plan. In that time, I’m proud that we’ve doubled our stocking rate and reduced our hay usage by 70 percent — a massive financial relief. We’ve also cut inputs. No fertilizer, seed, and lime — just a regularly rotated mob of cattle. While some folks think of high-density grazing as the “new thing” in grassland and livestock management, mob graziers aim to recreate something quite old — the traditional behaviors that bison, deer, elk, and other ruminant livestock exhibited on native prairie and meadowland in response to predators and fire that we’ve largely removed from the equation.
Thanks to some quick daily monitoring, we’ve found a “sweet spot” for pasture and herd health. Throughout the rotation, we ensure that every animal gets a full diet of nutritious forage and that our plants are never overgrazed. Also, thanks to the constant shearing of grass tips, high-density grazing combats climate change by sequestering carbon in soil. Without a doubt, Management-intensive Grazing has made some dramatic, positive changes to our pastures — and it’ll do the same for you.
At its simplest, mob grazing is an efficient technique for managing your livestock and pastureland. Using temporary electric fencing, you divide your pasture into a series of small paddocks, or cells, and move your herd daily from one paddock to the next. You’ll pack a dense number of animals into a fairly small space, but it works because the rotation allows the grasses to recover before the herd can graze them again.
Livestock positively impact forages and soil in many ways. First, higher stocking densities, or more pounds of cattle on a given acre, mean more forage trampled on the ground to form and break up the litter bank. A litter bank, or anything organic that’s trampled onto the ground, will protect your soil from sunlight, help preserve moisture, and catch rainwater for growing more forage. I like to think of a litter bank as a smorgasbord that soil microbes feed on. And all their munching stimulates more plant growth, which can mean faster pasture recovery for my herd.
Higher stocking densities also bring about better manure and urine distribution, which will allow you to grow more forage without buying fertilizer. The livestock will do all the work for you. Finally, Management-intensive Grazing also encourages a much higher diversity of plants in your pasture. After you start increasing the stocking density of the animals, they’ll become much less selective. Plants that they might not normally eat under a less dense, set-stock grazing density will become food. It becomes a competition of who gets at it first!
Don’t install a lot of permanent paddocks when you first deploy mob-grazing methods. The permanent paddocks will only get in the way while you’re trying to learn how to best graze your ground. The more open you can leave your farm, the easier it will be to install temporary paddocks. You’ll also have fewer gates to deal with, which will make herd moves more efficient.
Instead, I start by installing a hot, high-tensile feeder wire around the perimeter because I can use it to power up polybraid reels with temporary fence wherever I wish. This also saves me from having to buy fence energizers. We normally start our first paddock at the water source and move the paddock wire away from the water point every day.
You won’t absolutely need a back fence as long as you plan to move the cattle daily. The majority of our cattle don’t back graze, simply because they have a fresh paddock to graze from every day. Furthermore, in the early stages of your paddock development, it’s easy for cows to walk across the previously grazed paddocks to drink water. Cows shouldn’t walk on any paddock for more than four days or they’ll start grazing regrowth.
While you can initially eliminate the back fence for budget and design simplicity, you should aim to install back fences in the future. Back fences guarantee my pasture the full mob-grazing experience and all the associated benefits. When we put in back fences, each paddock had a more robust litter bank, a higher manure concentration, and a more complete rest period. In short, to install back fencing, you’ll need the materials to move water to the mob, or a corral to move the mob to the water. One word of wisdom: Don’t bankrupt your operation with water infrastructure — set up water lanes and let the animals walk!
Because you’ll be moving cattle daily and thereby stringing wire daily, use a 3-to-1 geared reel. This means that the reel spins three times for every crank of the handle. Next, you’ll need to invest in some mobile posts that are easy to install and remove. I aim for one post every 60 to 100 feet, increasing the frequency of posts with elevation change. I prefer polyethylene posts because of their weight and because they’re not conductive. You’ll appreciate this when you accidentally touch your post to a hot wire! I do use steel-shafted pigtail posts to make my paddock corners, which saves me a whole bunch of time driving corner posts.
For temporary electric fencing, you can choose between polywire — usually with six or nine strands braided together — and polytape. Polywire is cheaper, easier to repair, and can be strung for longer runs than polytape without a voltage drop. Polytape has the visibility advantage — for cattle and humans!
A good charger will power your fence and is the most important part of the electric fence system. When I first started out, I bought several cheap chargers to try to save money. Well, it ended up costing me dearly in money, energy, and time. Today’s energizer models have higher capacities, can deliver voltage with less-than-perfect grounding, and are safer for humans and animals. You’ll need to choose an energizer that you can mount and move with ease. Make sure that your unit comes with surge protection and lightning diverters where the lead-out wire meets the fencing. Ground your energizer as well as possible to handle dry seasons and grasses on the bottom wire. We went ahead and paid a little extra for the remote control option that doubles as a fault finder, which is a major time-saver when we need to find shorts in the fence.
As a business owner, I need to be 100 percent focused on animal performance. To survive, much less thrive, from one day to the next, ruminants must have a steady diet of high-energy forage. To fulfill that need as we rotate our animals through their paddocks, we’re focused on letting the animals graze only the top third of the plant — the highest-energy portion. By removing no more than the top third, we’re allowing the pasture to grow back much faster as well, meaning a quicker grazing turnaround.
One of the best times to check on your herd’s nutrient intake will be when the mob moves to the next paddock. Position yourself to observe the area in front of the hip bone. The rumen lives in that region, and whenever you move cattle, it should be flush or slightly rounded out. If that area is sunken, the rumen isn’t full and your paddock planning has limited the animal. Don’t panic — just give your herd a bigger area to graze the next day.
In addition to monitoring your herd’s rumens, keep an eye on their behavior as they enter a new paddock. Normal mob behavior is to walk to the back of the new paddock, perhaps grabbing a few bites as they go, because the animals want to see how far the paddock extends before they get serious about grazing. After the lead animals reach the back, the mob should come back toward you, walking and slowly eating. It may even seem like they’re all standing still while they’re eating. This is good.
If the animals don’t seem interested in their new paddock, that’s a sign that you’ve over-supplied them in the previous paddock. If this behavior continues in the next few moves, consider decreasing their paddock size. Conversely, if the cows mob to the new paddock like normal, and they’re all still munching away when you go out to the paddock three hours later, you may have slightly limited them on the previous paddock. The reason they’re still eating is that their stomachs were mostly empty when you moved them. In my paddock design, after three hours, rumens should be full when the cattle lay down, ruminating, after a paddock change.
You’ll also need to observe the pasture immediately after the mob’s departure. Properly grazed pastures recover faster, which means more high-nutrient grazing for the herd, and better litter bank maintenance for all the critters and, ultimately, the soil. I try to leave enough forage in the paddock to feed the animals for one more day after the move. The pasture shouldn’t have a mowed look to it. Make sure you leave more than you take, and the soil life will reward you with an explosion of plant regrowth. If you allow the herd to remove more than half the plant, you’ll run out of forage for your animals as the growing season progresses.
Next, walk along the paddock fencing: If it looks like you mowed a pass along the other side of the paddock division wire that the cattle were locked out of, that’s a red flag. The animals got hungry and actually risked getting shocked by reaching under the wire for something to eat. Give them a bigger area with the next paddock change.
Finally, walk to the paddock that’s next in line to be grazed. Observe whether the plants are fully recovered from the previous grazing. The plant tips should be pointed like a sharpened pencil. Take some notes on plant diversity. At the end of your grazing season, you’ll start to notice the correlation between certain grasses and certain areas of pasture, rainfall, temperature, and so much more. Believe me, with intensive grazing and monitoring, you’re sure to learn all sorts of fascinating facts about your farm!
Management-intensive grazing is a grassland manager’s best option to return airborne carbon — released during the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities — to the soil. Grasslands are particularly adept at carbon sequestration because of the nature of grasses themselves. All plants pull carbon from airborne carbon dioxide in order to build carbon structures, such as branches, roots, leaves, and stems. Unlike trees or shrubs, which store much of their carbon aboveground, a grass plant dedicates the majority of its carbon structure to root development. When a ruminant grazer, such as a bison or a cow, grazes a plant’s nutrient-rich top, the plant responds by sloughing off enough root-tip to rebuild the plant’s top.
Soil microorganisms, including many insects, worms, and nematodes, digest that discarded carbon and produce smaller carbon compounds that are more stable, and thus more likely to be protected and stored in the soil. Because management-intensive grazing protects soil microbes and encourages diversity, it also encourages the breakdown of larger carbon molecules into stable forms for long-term storage.
Mob graziers also increase their pastures’ carbon storage by developing perennial, multi-season pastures. With healthy stands of cool-season and warm-season grasses, graziers can extend their pastures’ grazing and carbon sequestration seasons. Further, cold-tolerant cover crops, such as brassicas and winter rye, will protect soil microorganisms for the toughest part of the year, ensuring a full-throttled carbon sequestration effort in spring.
Every day you can let animals feed themselves from your pasture is a day that you’ll keep money in your pocket — and put pounds on the hoof. We’ve got to wean ourselves off this cycle of buying outside inputs to support our livestock. When properly managed, your pastures can supply your livestock with highly nutritious forage throughout the year. Switching to mob grazing cattle also breaks us out of the short-term thinking that’s cost us our most valuable asset — soil health. Healthy pastures and high-performance herds don’t just coexist — they’re codependent.
Greg Judy raises South Poll cattle in addition to sheep, horses, goats, and pigs in central Missouri. He is a frequent speaker on management-intensive grazing practices and is the author of No Risk Ranching and Comeback Farms.