Remember The R's For Resilient Ranches - Rotate
Updated: Apr 25
Remember the R’s! Easy to remember grazing principles
One simple way to keep the best of the grazing principles in mind is to remember the r’s. That includes Rotate, Rest, and Recover, along with proper stocking Rates and maintaining healthy Root systems. In this blog post we will discuss one of the R’s, Rotate.
Rotate for Healthier, Resilient Soils and Grazinglands
more than half of South Dakota ranchers practice at least a simple rotational grazing system, according to a 2018 rancher survey by South Dakota State Universi- ty. Moving livestock to allow pastures to rest and recover is an important first step in sound grazing systems that produce more forage and productive grasslands. Those who have been using sound grazing practices for years have discovered that using those practices also results in healthier grass- land soils. Basic soil health principles used for croplands such as a diversity of plants and keeping roots growing are modeled after healthy grasslands development. Rotational grazing, for in- stance, keeps pastures from being overgrazed, leaving enough grass cover to keep the soil armored. Just as importantly, live roots keep growing in the soil to feed microbes as pastures are rested and allowed to recover after grazing. The shorter term, more intense grazing encourages more even use
of forages, resulting in more diversity of plant species– another important principle to follow in building healthy soils.
The bottom line: you can’t build healthy grassland soils without applying sound grazing principles, nor can you get the most production from your grasses without applying the principles of soil health.
Rotating pastures is the grazing management tech- nique that enables pastures to be rested. This period of Rest after grazing, in turn, allows time for both plants and their roots to Recover. This recovery time promotes regrowth and natural diversi- ty in grasslands.
Optimum stocking Rate matches the amount of expected forage to numbers of livestock, helping ensure grasses will not be over- grazed. Giving plant Roots time to recover after grazing is critical to long-term plant health, as well as to feed- ing soil microbes that build healthy soils able to infiltrate and hold rainfall.
“We don’t need to take
all that grass off. One of our goals is to leave a minimum of a thousand pounds of grass per acre behind after grazing— leave that ground covered, leave that armor on the ground. We try to save every drop of rain we get. If you can cover your ground in a drought and leave it covered, as soon as it rains, within 30 to 45 days it’s ready to go again. But if you bare the ground it may be three to five years before it recovers. Leaving enough forage after grazing to feed soil microbes is a big thing— that and letting our land rest. We might be grazing on a piece of land a week or sometimes only a day, but then we don’t touch it for a full year so it has a lot of time to recover. Rest is important, but rest alone isn’t the answer. You have to have enough moisture during that rest so the grass and roots can recover—there’s no set or magic time frame for how long it takes a pasture to recover.”
—Pat Guptill Quinn, SD
Keep the R’s in mind to set the framework for resilient soils, grasslands, and ranches!
A key to rotational grazing is leaving a healthy amount of grass–– at least 4 inches, generally–– after grazing to allow plants and roots to rest and recover, and feed microbes.
Remember the R’s
Rotate pastures, time of year, and livestock type if you want higher grass- land production for years to come, more resilience in a drought, and diverse grass- lands that infiltrate and store rainfall to build healthy soils, think rotation. It’s the path- way to the rest and recovery both plants and their roots need to build both healthy grasslands and healthy soils. The problem with season long grazing is the likelihood of overgrazing the plants livestock like most. Long- standing research shows 50% of root growth stops when 60% of the leaf volume of plants are grazed, and all root growth stops when 80% of the plant is grazed. If a plant gets knocked down again and again in one season, it will eventually die, and other, less palatable plants move in. What you want instead is to offer plants the chance to rest and recover, pumping sugar downward to the roots, to feed the soil biology.
Most people think about rotating livestock through pastures, but rotating live- stock types and season of use from one year to the next also deliver dividends. Goats and sheep like to browse; goats will eat the pigweeds, lambsquarter, and other broadleaf weeds that cattle don’t like. Shifting the season of use is another crucial part of rotation.
Steps to Rotation
1) Complete an inventory
of resources, and get help in developing a grazing plan.
2) Reach out to those with experience—NRCS, certi- fied range managers, other producers.
3) Look for cost-sharing for developing the infrastructure you’ll need—fences, water supplies, etc.
4) A combination of tempo- rary and permanent fencing may be best.
5) A combination of tem- porary and permanent water supplies may work best.
6) Be realistic in setting goals for stocking rates, length of time for forage improve- ment, etc.
7) Aim to reduce duration of grazing, and increase dura- tion of rest.
8) Observe, observe, ob- serve, and be ready to make changes to your plan.
Take Half, Leave Half
The widely used “take half, leave half” grazing rule of thumb’s intent is to stop grazing before root growth is affected. It’s based on grass weight, not height. It’s the weight of the grass leaves from the ground surface to the top of the plant. “Take half’”equals the top two-thirds of the plant leaf growth, which often correlates to leaving 4”-5” residual plant height above ground. This photosynthe- sizes and drives plant growth.
“I was brought up with no other way of thinking but to rotate pastures, and just learning how to read the grass. We try to rotate every two to six days, depending on pasture size and herd sizes. We watch how much is being grazed; we have a take half/leave half mentality, and that guides us on when it’s time to move on. Those cows love to get to that fresh pasture and they get pretty used to rotating. If you’re wondering if you should move them, they’ll usually tell you because they’ll be waiting for you at the gate.”
– Britton Blair Sturgis, SD