Small-Scale Rotational Grazing

Keeping your cattle, goats, sheep, or chickens moving is the key to successful, controlled rotational grazing on a small homestead.

| December 2016/January 2017

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.

Managing Movement: Electric Fence vs. Portable Pens

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.

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