What is rotational grazing? Why bother?
Cattle have been eating grass for thousands of years. Throughout much of North America, bison ate grass before Europeans ever reached our shores. There is a method and a rhythm, however, in how herbivores (like cows and bison) eat grass. In nature, herbivores naturally roam in large, dense herds for safety from predators. Rotational grazing with temporary paddocks mimics the natural mob movement of wild herbivores and provides numerous benefits to the animals, land, and farmer.
The first element in grazing management is the soil and grass. A farmer raising grass-fed beef is first and foremost a grass farmer. Rotational grazing puts a high density of cows in a pasture just big enough for the herd to eat for one day (or on some farms, even down to a quarter of a day). The cattle eat and trample all of the paddock’s vegetation evenly, keeping down weeds and preserving a mat of grass to protect the soil from erosion. The herd is then moved to another pasture each day and not allowed to return to the same paddock until the grass has regrown. This gives the grass adequate time to grow without being re-grazed while it is still vulnerable. Meanwhile, the roots die back in accord with the grass that's been eaten. Those dead root fibers provide a major boost to soil organic matter and help absorb and hold more water than a field with very little organic matter.
Another reason to do rotational grazing is that closely-managed rotational grazing also allows the farmer to run more cattle in a set space. This is a great tool for small farms like Crane Crest that have limited resources when they are just starting out. In a situation where cows are put on the same piece of pasture for an extended period of time, they graze the types of grass they like and ignore the others. This weakens the good grasses and strengthens the weeds, upsetting the whole balance and productivity of the pasture. A good, evenly-grazed, well-rested pasture can support more cattle, and in turn, the farmer who is doing the careful grazing management.
A third benefit to rotational grazing is the benefit to the animals’ health. In a well-planned grazing rotation, cattle ideally don’t return to the same paddock for over a month. By doing this, most of the parasites left behind in the cow pies go through a life cycle and die before the cattle come back through. The cattle are less burdened by parasites, and the farmer can easily manage the remaining parasites without using chemical treatments that stress the cattle’s immune systems.
At the heart of rotational grazing is the relationship between the farmer and the land. If we support the land with thoughtful and careful management, almost like a massage, the land and its natural abundance will likewise support us.