Keeping your cattle, goats, sheep, or chickens moving is the key to successful, controlled rotational grazing on a small homestead.
Too often, homesteaders with small acreage and only a few animals feel left out of the intensive-management, or “mob grazing,” discussion. Listening to commercial farmers and ranchers talk about moving 200 cows around an intricate grazing mosaic may be exciting, but is such a thing practical for someone with only 1 or 2 acres?
Rest assured, you folks with humble homesteads, the only thing about mob grazing that would be problematic for you is the higher cost per acre of infrastructure improvements. These expenses are unavoidable. Yes, stopping and starting a fence or water line is expensive — think insulators, energizers, valves, pipe clamps, and more — but the principles of small-scale and large-scale mob grazing are close to identical.
Let’s start with the basics. My cows, pigs, and poultry need three things from me: water, shelter, and proximate control. The neighbors don’t want our animals roaming all over their property, and our gardens don’t need sheep and goats munching down the beet tops. Keeping animals where they’re supposed to be (and eating what they’re supposed to be eating) is perhaps the first ingredient in the recipe for controlled grazing.
Animals are supposed to move, and movement is required for proper sanitation, vegetation pruning, and defecation spreading. Methods of managing their movement can take many different forms depending on species, size of area, and number of animals.
Few people are bigger fans of electric fence than I, but with small livestock and poultry, a completely portable housing situation is often easier to work with than electric fence. Control and protection requirements for poultry are quite different than for cows. Portable coops are the name of the pastured-poultry game. Small-scale, controlled poultry grazing often centers around some sort of portable all-purpose structure, such as chicken tractors with electric netting runs. At a liberal 5 square feet per bird, even a 10-by-10-foot paddock per day is plenty for 20 laying hens.
Anyone familiar with our farm knows that we use and encourage portable chicken shelters for meat chicken production. With poultry, it’s not enough to keep the birds controlled — you have to also keep predators out. That changes the game and makes the portable accommodations competitive with electric fencing systems.
When only a few larger animals are involved, completely contained portable structures are often more cost-effective than electric fencing. My grandson’s ram does well in a 10-by-10-foot lightweight wooden corral on rubber tires. We call it “The Rambler.” Even a 10-year-old can push it, and it doesn’t require energizers, ground rods, or separate shelter. The Rambler allows my grandson to use his ram like a biological weed trimmer around the yard, farm buildings, and homestead without having to run electric wires.
With cows, whether we’re talking a couple of beef steers or a milk cow, seldom can a physical, portable corral system compete with electric fencing because of the size and strength of cattle — large animals can tear up flimsy portable structures. The sheer weight required to make a portable corral strong enough to hold a sizable animal would make it cumbersome to move.
I don’t want to get bogged down in electric fencing types; my purpose here is to promote the movement of grazing animals because it’s key to their health. Here’s a rule of thumb: Cows generally do fine with a single wire; sheep and goats need three; pigs need two when they’re small and are fine with one after they’ve reached 150 pounds.
The basis for all controlled grazing is the animal unit per day. To know how much to give them for a day, you need to know how much forage is available. Developing this sense is called the “grazier’s eye.” (The cow is the grazer; you’re the grazier.) If you’re moving animals every day and recording how much area you gave them, you’ll quickly get a good sense of how much area they need for one day. The key is to know how much area they got so you can make a knowledgeable adjustment.
For example, if I give a cow 200 square yards and she still has a lot left to graze after 24 hours, I’ll adjust the yardage down the next day. If I decide to adjust her 200 square yards by 10 percent, then I’ll give her 180 square yards the next day. If I adjust by 20 percent, she’ll get 160 square yards, and so forth. Just eyeballing the area and running fences by guess or by golly won’t develop your grazier’s eye. This is the technical part in which Allan Nation, Greg Judy, Jim Gerrish, and Sarah Flack specialize.
When it comes to the cows’ comfort, there are two concerns: fresh, clean water; and protection from sun and wind. As far as water goes, I’m a huge fan of pipe. Carrying water is time-consuming and arduous. It’s not that expensive to run a line and enjoy on-demand water. Shade for your cows in these little paddocks can be provided with nursery shade cloth atop a simple Tinkertoy-type portable structure. Just 20 square feet (a footprint of 4 by 5 feet, and 5 feet tall) is more than enough for each cow. That can easily be built light enough to push around by hand, like a glorified wheelbarrow.
While controlled grazing involves math and science, it also involves artistry. Essentially, you’re using a 4-legged mower to prune and freshen up biomass. The electric fence becomes the steering wheel, brake, and accelerator on that pruning instrument, which in this case happens to be an extremely intelligent and lovable animal.
Controlled or rotational grazing is like magic when you start doing it. What seems like a daunting amount of work (“What? I have to move the cow every day?”) actually becomes an enjoyable daily practice. The animals respond to the fresh salad bar, and that salad bar responds positively to their strategic pruning. Because forage grows in an S-curve (see chart), controlled grazing will enable you to time the pruning (grazing) at the top of the “S,” before plants head into senescence (that is, begin to die). The whole idea is to increase the amount of time during which plants enjoy their juvenile growth period, thus capturing more solar energy and transforming it into biomass.
How does this look in practical terms? Let’s assume you have one cow and 2 acres. Under continuous grazing regimens, that pasture will yield (in our part of Virginia) 80 grazing days per acre, or 160 grazing days for the 2 acres, which is only enough for a quarter or half of a year, respectively. Generally, a homesteader will buy hay to feed the cow for the rest of the year.
Now, let’s assume that we use electric fencing and give the cow access to only as much pasture as she needs for a day. If the forage is 50 grazing days in volume, the cow needs 1⁄50 of an acre, or about 100 square yards. Ideally, that would be offered at 10 yards by 10 yards — I’ve found that animals graze squares more efficiently than rectangles. Tomorrow, she’ll be moved to the next spot, and to the next spot the day after that.
Under this regimen, it will take 100 days to cover the whole 2 acres. That means the first paddock grazed will have had 99 days to recover. In areas with rainfall above 20 inches per year, a 3-month rest period during the growing season is usually adequate for the forage to regrow to pre-grazing volume. The second grazing cycle takes another 100 days. Now we’ll have grazed 200 days and will have a third cycle to go. Suddenly, we don’t need to buy any hay!
By using this practice on our farm, we’ve boosted our production from an average of 80 grazing days per acre to an average of 400. On leased pasture, we’ve consistently achieved a doubling of production in one year by switching from continuous to daily-move rotational grazing.
Many people wonder why the daily move is so important. How about once a week, or every few days? Having worked with this for a lifetime, I can assure you that the daily move is magic. First, it keeps the animal on the highest, most consistent, nutritional plane. Second, it maximizes manure and urine application. Third, it creates a high level of disturbance for the shortest period of time, which is good for the ecology of the plants and the soil. Fourth, the animal enjoys a routine and builds not only knowledge but trust in the system and in you, the grazier.
Daily moves will also increase your learning curve. If you’re moving once a week, you’ll only learn at 52 pings per year. But, if you move daily, you can actually learn at 365 pings per year. In actual practice, you’ll be gone once in a while and will give your animals a paddock big enough to last for a few days. You’ll have some more-fertile areas and other less-fertile areas, so you’ll have to adjust the size of the paddocks to accommodate the thickness and richness of the sward in those particular spots. Remember: The more often you move the animal, the quicker you’ll master this technique.
The choreography of this intricate human-animal-ecology dance offers a lifetime of nuanced discoveries. Today is the best time to start!
Joel Salatin’s family has been farming in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley since 1961. A self-proclaimed rabble-rouser and cheerleader for a new model of food production, Salatin is the author of many books, most of which are available in our Store.
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