By Sonia Howlett, VT Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets
Rotational grazing, the practice of containing and moving animals across pasture in a planned schedule, has been around just about forever. It mimics the behavior of migratory or predator-shy wildlife in natural ecological systems and is very similar in essence to the herding that has been practiced by many cultures since the advent of animal agriculture.
If you have animals and sufficient land base, this time of high fuel and feed prices may be a good time to consider a switch to rotational grazing. Allowing animals to travel to find their own feed, rather than purchasing, trucking, harvesting and/or processing feed, can offer significant savings in fuel and input costs. Well-managed rotational grazing can also significantly improve the health of your soil and pastures, improve the quality of your forage and make your land and business more resilient to changing rainfall patterns. There is no farm in Vermont too big or too small for incorporating at least some rotational grazing into their system, whether it’s the whole herd, just the heifers, or your two backyard goats!
Some tips to keep in mind:
- Temporary electric fencing is good for new grazers as it is reasonably affordable and designed to be moved. To train new animals to respect the electric fence, consider setting it up just inside the walls of your existing animal pens for a few weeks, fully charged, before turning your animals out.
- Make a plan for how your animals will access water and shade. Avoid unrestricted access to waterways, as animals can and will erode the banks very quickly. Instead consider movable water buckets, fixed watering trough areas, or open laneways back to the barn.
- Make a plan for your rotations: turn out animals onto well-established pasture in the spring, move them frequently enough to maintain at least 3 inches of residual vegetation, and leave adequate time for your pastures to regrow before moving animals back into them. Otherwise you run the risk of overgrazing, which can lead to plant and pasture stress and will negatively impact forage quality and quantity. If necessary, you can feed supplemental feed in the barn or another heavy use area to extend the length of your rest period.
- There are many farms in the state who are excellent grazers and managers of livestock. When in doubt, ask a grazing neighbor for advice, or Google “Vermont Pasture Network” list serv to join an email community of grazers in the state.
If you are interested in making the switch to rotational grazing, or improving the grazing you are doing, reach out to a professional pasture specialist and make a grazing plan. In addition to improving your farming and business, working with a grazing specialist and creating a grazing plan can help you access a variety of state Agency of Agriculture and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service grants for new and existing grazers to install pasture infrastructure or receive annual payments for their grazing practices.
Visit https://www.uvm.edu/extension/grazing to learn more and to request to be put in contact with someone from their team!